piano keys

Why Sad Songs Say so Much

As a minor key kind of gal, I often wonder: 

Why does sad music make me feel so happy?

Why do I feel so thrilled when Jacques Brel sings of abandonment? Why do I prefer my Chopin in C sharp minor? Why do I love Leonard Cohen so much?

Aristotle thought that the answer to this phenomenon was catharsis—by immersing ourselves in sad feelings, we free ourselves from those same emotions in real life.

But psychologist Ai Kawakami has a more interesting explanation: the sadness we feel “in the realm of artistic appreciation” is not the same thing as the sadness we feel “in everyday life.” When we listen to tragic music, he says, we understand perfectly well that we’re listening to something “gloomy, meditative, and miserable.” But that’s not what we feel. Instead, this kind of music provokes romantic emotions—“fascinated, dear, and in love”—and even blithe ones such as feeling merry, animated, and “in the mood for dancing.”

Kawakami calls these “vicarious emotions”—we experience secondhand sadness that somehow transforms into something lovely and positive.

But why are our emotional systems set up this way? Why is sadness beautiful when viewed from a distance? No one knows the answer yet.

But I have a guess. I think that love and loss go together—flip sides of the same coin. And when we hear music that makes us think of loss, it also makes us appreciate love—fragile, fleeting, evanescent, transcendent love.

*The above post previously appeared on Susan Cain’s former blog, The Power of Introverts.

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