July 19, 2013

Why we listen to sad music

Music is found to evoke not real, but vicarious emotions

Figure 1: Listening to sad music can be a pleasant experience.

© 2013 Ai Kawakami, RIKEN Brain Science Institute

Musicologists, psychologists and philosophers have long puzzled over the fact that, despite sadness being an emotion normally avoided, people often voluntarily listen to sad music. New research from Ai Kawakami, Kazuo Okanoya and colleagues from the Emotional Information Joint Research Laboratory at the RIKEN Brain Science Institute shows that we listen to sad music because the emotion it induces is vicarious and not born of events in our own daily life1.

Kawakami and her fellow researchers thought that the ability for people to feel pleasure when listening to music they perceive as sad might have something to do with a difference between the perception of emotion in the music and the emotion it actually evoked. In earlier work, the group tested the response to dissonance and music in a minor key—musical structures that are associated with sadness. Although the musical stimuli they used were short, only one to four bars, they found that musicians recognised the music as sad and often found pleasure in it.

In this study, the researchers broadened their work by using existing music and testing two hypotheses—that the emotion felt did not necessarily correspond to perceived emotion, and that musicians would gain more pleasure from sad music than non-musicians. The researchers asked 17 musicians and 27 non-musicians to listen to one of 3 musical excerpts in a major and minor key. The participants then rated how they perceived the music and how it made them feel with respect to 62 emotion-laden words.

“The results revealed an ambivalent emotion when people listened to sad music. This emotional response did not correlate with musical training,” Kawakami says. “While listeners, including musicians and non-specialists, perceive the sad music as sad, their own emotional state at the time was less tragic.”

After considering the possible reasons for such emotional ambivalence induced by sad music, the researchers concluded that a new model was required to examine the emotions evoked by music. The model they proposed includes the possibility that what listeners experience when listening to music are vicarious emotions.

“On this basis we propose that while sadness experienced in daily life is a negative emotion, the sadness experienced by listening to music can be a positive emotion,” says Kawakami. They further suggest that this capacity to experience positive emotions from negative perceived emotions could help people deal with negative emotions in daily life.


  1. Kawakami, A., Furukawa, K., Katahira K. & Okanoya, K. Sad music induces pleasant emotion. Frontiers in Psychology 4, 311 (2013). doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00311 (Link)