According to a study by researchers in Tokyo, listeners perceived the sadness in sad music, but felt both sadness and pleasure when the music was played.
Participants rated how ‘sad’ a piece sounded, and were asked to choose descriptive words or phrases to match the emotions they experienced. The results revealed that sad music, while being perceived to be more tragic, actually made participants feel more positive (and even more romantic!) than the emotions they picked up in the music.
The researchers avoided selecting well-known pieces of music in case any of the participants had their own emotional memories connected with the piece. They used Glinka’s La Separation, Blumenfeld’s Etude Sur Mer, and Granados’s Allegro de Concierto in both major and minor versions, to see if it was the key itself or the music which provoked an emotional reaction.
“The sad emotion that is induced when we listen to sad music that is not accompanied by extra-musical factors would be regarded as vicarious and can be pleasant,” the study says. “Because the danger that is associated with listening to sad music does not pose a direct threat to us, listeners are able to trust and enjoy the listening process.”
It’s not just musicians who felt unexpected emotions when listening to the pieces. Regardless of musical background, the participants in the study experienced a similar level of positivity after listening to the sad music.