Getting Brainy With It (Pt 2.)

Last week we talked about how music can make us physically happy. Increased dopamine on top of buoyant melodies and driving bass is a recipe for the perfect workout or just a general mood booster (If you missed last week’s Music State of Mind, catch up here). But what about sad music? Is there such a thing? What is it about some songs that can bring us to tears?

Much of music’s ability to make us feel – happy, sad, or somewhere in between – is in its connection to past experiences. Songs can act as powerful retrieval cues, bringing back sentiments or emotions associated with past memories. So, if we have songs or even sayings that are associated with painful memories, music reminiscent of those feelings can precipitate bouts of intense melancholy. However, as detailed in a 2012 NPR article, there may be more concrete and universal reasons for music’s ability to evoke sadness. In this article, Professor John Sloboda of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London attributes much of a song’s sadness factor to a “musical ornament” called appoggiatura. Difficult to define, this device is comparable to a grace note, embroidering a song’s melody with often dissonant tones, as can be found in much of Adele’s music.

“Generally music is consonant rather than dissonant, so we expect a nice chord. So when that chord is not quite what we expect, it gives you a little bit of an emotional frisson, because it’s strange and unexpected.” – Dr. Sloboda

Yet there’s something cathartic about listening to sad music. Despite our perception that sad music brings down our mood, it can also provoke positive emotions by way of something called “sweet anticipation”. A 2013 study focusing on this separation of “perceived emotion” from what the subjects actually felt when asked to listen to sad music, found that when we listen to sad music, we expect to experience feelings of sadness. And so, when we do, our brain gives itself a figurative pat on the back. This subconscious self-praise for correctly predicting our own feelings – or “sweet anticipation” – may play a large role in the tendency of sad songs to let us vicariously experience anguish in a way that leaves us unharmed, if not rejuvenated.

The effects of music on the human brain are just as diverse and complex as music itself, and there is still much to be learned about exactly how and why we process music in the ways we do. However, it is safe to say that for the vast majority, music has an overall positive impact on our well-being through its release of feel-good chemicals in the brain, facilitation of processing emotions, and connection to others.

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