I remember one afternoon I was sitting in my college dorm room, listening to some music over my sub-woofer boosted speakers as I often did when I was procrastinating doing my homework, when suddenly my roommate burst into the room and paused as he took in the sound that was stemming from my Winamp MP3 player.
“Why are you always listening to this sad garbage??” he harangued. “This depressing crap is your favorite kind of music!”
He was kind of right. I was always listening to sad music. Not literally always, of course, as there were plenty of upbeat tunes across an array of genres that would play at any given time. But I was particularly drawn to the somber side of things. Not that I was a particularly sad person – I was friendly and liked to have a good time with my dorm-mates, and I wasn’t sitting around sobbing myself to sleep morosely in the corner all the time or anything. So why was I magnetically drawn to this music that was so often mired in misery?
If you’re into the blues – and if you’re reading this blog you probably are – then you yourself are no stranger to musical heartbreak and gloom. We enjoy music full of angst and existential despair, gravitating towards musicians that sing of heartache and misfortune. When it comes to music, we got the blues, baby.
I just recently came across an article by Melissa Dahl in New York Magazine that shed some light on our predilection for musical misery. And guess what – science is on our side! Our penchant for depressing dirges is a shared human tendency rooted deeply in the way we relate to music on a fundamental level. It even has health benefits! As Dahl writes, “The authors say that melancholy music helps with emotional regulation — that is, it helps us process our emotions by prompting reflection and contemplation — and that this study could provide the groundwork for new ways to use music as therapy.”
The ancient philosopher Aristotle believed that the reason we enjoyed tragedy as a dramatic art form was to purge ourselves of the negative emotions that we ordinarily harbored deep inside of us. One could expect a similar line of reasoning when it comes to sad music: we listen to sad music so we can experience deep sadness and then banish such feelings from our soul. But the funny thing about it is, the research shows that downhearted music doesn’t just make us feel sad, as one might expect. Rather, it taps into an entire range of emotions. Dahl notes that some of these include, “wonder, transcendence, peacefulness, and nostalgia. (Nostalgia was the most frequently mentioned emotion)” and these are referred to as “sublime” emotions.
And the sublime, after all, is almost the opposite of how we feel when we feel sadness: the sublime is what we find inspiring, moving, uplifting, and transcendent. Indeed, the great 18th century enlightenment philosopher Kant wrote much on the relationship between aesthetic experience and the sublime, although he associated the sublime with our interaction with awe-inspiring nature rather than with art, which was merely the realm of the beautiful.
The study from PLOS ONE is not the first investigation launched by science into the moody terrain of melancholic music. A New York Times article pointed me in the direction this study from last year published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology which found that sad music induces pleasant rather than negative emotions. The abstract from that study explains, “The results revealed that the sad music was perceived to be more tragic, whereas the actual experiences of the participants listening to the sad music induced them to feel more romantic, more blithe, and less tragic emotions than they actually perceived with respect to the same music.”
My experience of sad music largely coincides with these findings. Not always, of course. I can distinctly remember a time, after an excruciating breakup with a romantic partner, I was out walking by myself in a park in Inwood, Manhattan, an isolated spot in the city that feels light years removed from the busy, bustling streets of midtown, when a song about a couple splitting up came on my iPod. It made me begin to sob and it was one of the saddest moments of my life. And maybe it was a Kelly Clarkson song. Please don’t tell that to anyone. But blues music and other sad music in general doesn’t give me the blues, but rather raises me up, invigorates me, and uplifts my soul. I don’t listen to the blues to wallow in depression, but rather to feel the sublime emotions that great sad music engenders in me.
Need to get in touch with your sublime emotions?
And if you aren’t feeling positively delighted yet, here’s one of my all time favorite tearjerkers from Tom Waits:
– Brian R.