The experience of sadness when listening to music is a fascinating puzzle. It consists of seemingly conflicting emotional experiences: music induces a range of positive emotions even though sadness as an emotion is considered to be negative. Our research using several samples and methods has suggested that sad music generates three types of emotional experiences: truly sad, comforting, and pleasurable (Eerola & Peltola, 2016). Sad music can lead to feelings of pleasure related to enjoyment of the music in some people, and feelings of comfort where sad music evokes memories. People also report painful experiences associated with listening to sad music, which invariably related to personal loss such as the death of a loved one, divorce, breakup, or other significant adversity in life. In lab-based listening experiments, we have shown that sad music is able to generate similar negative biases in cognitive processing to those produced by real, autobiographically-induced sadness (Vuoskoski & Eerola, 2012).
Recently we have discovered that while many people report feeling relaxed and peaceful after listening to sad instrumental music, only highly empathic people report being deeply moved by such music (Eerola, Vuoskoski & Kautiainen, 2016). Sad music is – not surprisingly – used to regulate moods and to reflect and gain perspective in challenging situations in life (Eerola, Peltola & Vuoskoski, 2015).
For a concise summary, read a piece on Why sad songs say so much (to some people, but not others) in The Conversation.
Our music and sadness studies have been funded by the Academy of Finland.