Even though listening to sad songs should leave us feeling terrible, we have a tendency to actually kind of like them. Case in point: A 2008 study found that minor-key music sounded sadder than major-key music to people, but that people found it more likable.
Well, a group of Japanese researchers just got paid to figure out why we enjoy crying it out with Adele over her broken heart so much. It’s not just masochism–although we understand that the song is supposed to evoke sadness, we end up feeling more positive or ambivalent emotions in response.
In a study of 44 people, participants listened to one of three lesser-known classical pieces–to avoid emotional influence from memories connected to hearing the piece before–in both a major and minor key. Researchers asked them to pinpoint the feelings they experienced while listening to the music, as well as predict what kind of emotions they perceived other people would experience while listening to the song.
Participants perceived the sad music (the songs in a minor key) as tragic, but it didn’t make them as miserable as they thought another person would feel, the researchers write:
The listeners felt less gloomy, meditative, and miserable as well as more fascinated, dear, in love, merry, animated, and inclined to dance when they listened to sad music compared with their actual perceptions of the same music.
Part of the reason for this could be that we expect to feel sad, and are thus pleased when our expectations come to pass, a phenomenon called “sweet anticipation.”
“Even if listeners experience negative emotions when listening to sad music, sweet anticipation might still allow them to feel positive emotions,” the paper concludes. “Even if the music itself is perceived as negative, and negative emotion is aroused in listeners in part, we have a tendency to experience ambivalent emotions by concurrently feeling pleased by virtue of our cognitive appraisal.”
It could also have to do with the fact that the sadness we feel isn’t the direct result of a sad situation. Listening to someone else sing about his or her sadness is a vicarious experience, so the sadness we feel isn’t as threatening to our well-being. We can just sit back and enjoy someone else’s heartbreak.
The study is published in Frontiers In Emotion Science.