Do We Like Sad Music?

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As reported in the New York Times, a researcher with the Okanoya Emotional Information Project of the Japan Science and Technology Agency thinks we do. The study tested people’s reactions to different types of music. The researchers learned that we respond to sad music with what they called “vicarious emotions.” These are to be distinguished from “felt emotions.” Vicarious emotions can be invoked by the music, but we do not feel those emotions in the way that we would when presented a real-life situation.

I have a couple of problems with this study, at least as it was presented in the article. First, reducing the musical language and its affect to minor=sad, major=happy seems to me to be too simplistic and ripe with problems of (mis)interpretation by listeners. The association does not cross all cultural boundaries and is not even a universal with audiences of Western music. I have worked for a couple of decades with trained and not-so-trained amateurs and non-musicians and found several people that do not respond in the expected way. Trained musicians and amateurs may have been taught to make that connection. I would argue, too, that tonality alone is not the only sound that people respond to in the music. Texture, melody, dynamics, harmonic progressions, and other characteristics add levels of nuance to the interpretation.

Second, the emotional reaction was determined through a list of descriptors such as bouncy, happy, solemn, gloomy. I would have been more convinced if they had included data on physiological responses. Words carry connotations and cultural and social baggage, and require that researcher and subject be in complete agreement about the meaning. I also wonder if, on any given day, we might react differently to a piece of music than on another day, depending on where we are emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually on that day. Perhaps this addressed in the full study, but it left me wary of their results, particularly because they did not appear to use a control group.

The title of the article is provocative, of course. “Why We Like Sad Music.” In fact, the researchers did not say we like it. They said we reacted to it and the emotions we experienced were different from what we would experience in real life. To “like” a particular type of music involved a complex series of social, cultural, and personal decisions and reactions and, again, can’t be reduced to its tonality.

Now I’m going to crank up some major mode Glinka and get happy.

 

 

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