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Why do we like sad music?

Harry Patch by Radiohead.

A magnificently scornful piece in The Guardian this weekend flagged the trend for “sad bangers”, music in which, “Sensitive lads across the land have abandoned their cardies and acoustic guitars for varsity jackets and libraries of soft synths”.

Not to be confused with neo-classical cross-overs, such as the magnificent A Winged Victory for the Sullen, sad bangers are much closer to TV Scandic noir theme music by artists such as Ólafur Arnalds which, “Carry the faint imprint of dubstep, house or R&B without ever threatening to rattle your speakers.”

The accompanying visual images are of Icelandic tundra, craggy lakes, and big, cloudy skies: you get the idea. The Guardian journalist isn’t a fan:

It’s a feeble attempt to persuade you that the music’s lack of commitment or thrust is somehow enigmatic, rather than a cop-out.

I am not an emotional man. To paraphrase Jerome K. Jerome, if my eyes fill with tears, you can bet it is because I have been eating raw onions, or have put too much Worcester over my chop. Nonetheless, like everyone else, I love sad music - Radiohead’s Harry Patch has understandably been everywhere over the past few months, for instance - raising the question of why is it so popular?

There are two types of explanation, namely those from social psychology and those from cognitive neuroscience.

The most mainstream social psychological explanation is provided by the well-known process of downward social comparison. Put simply this says that we can feel better about ourselves by focusing on someone who is doing worse: we gain an improved sense of self-regard by telling ourselves that we are experiencing nothing like the emotional turmoil experienced by the musician playing a sad song.

This is not terribly convincing to my mind though. I would be absurdly narcissistic to find Harry Patch beautiful simply because, as a British passport holder, it reminds me how fortunate I was to have avoided conscription into the British army in the first world war: it is moving because there is something poignant about the passing of the last Tommy.

Similarly, if we like sad music because it allows us to tell ourselves we are nothing like the musicians playing it then we would be very unwilling to identify with the musician in question. And of course, the makers of sad music, most notably The Smiths, have tended to attract the most die-hard fans who actually identify themselves very closely indeed with the musicians.

Another social psychological explanation for the popularity of sad music at the moment comes from broader consideration of culture. We know that people like to listen to music that mirrors the more general emotional tone of their current life circumstances, and so it is not surprising that sad music should be popular in late 2014 when almost every country in the western world is experiencing some degree of social, political, or economic turmoil.

By this argument, sad bangers are popular because they provide an opportunity for positive, thoughtful reflection on one’s life, acting as an acoustic sherpa that guides you through the valley of sorrow and back onto the sunny side of the street.

Again this social psychological explanation seems weak. It is not as though music in a minor key only reaches the charts when there is a recession. Although many fans of The Smiths won’t have cared for Margaret Thatcher’s economic policies of the mid- to late-1980s, some would have benefited from the stronger economy of the time, making economic turmoil unconvincing as a necessary and sufficient pre-cursor to Morrissey’s popularity.

Instead it makes more sense to ignore sociocultural factors and instead focus on what is happening inside the mind and brain of the listener when hearing sad music. One theory argues that listening to sad music leads to the release of opiates, as the body prepares itself to adapt to a traumatic event: of course, since all that is really happening is that the person is listening to music, and so no traumatic event ever actually materialises, the listener is left with a body full of opiates and nothing nasty for them to mitigate: pleasure ensues.

Other cognitive neuroscience approaches have focused on what we really mean when we say that we perceive a piece of music is “sad”. Meta-mood explanations are similar to the downward social comparison approach, and describe how we might feel sad in response to a piece of music, but also feel happy at a more abstract level about feeling this sadness.

It is important to distinguish the sadness we perceive in a piece of music (i.e., the emotional valence of the music) from the emotion actually experienced as a consequence (i.e., happiness).

Some go even further and argue that one can explain liking for sad music by distinguishing two types of pleasure, namely immediate sensory pleasure (which results from listening to happy music) and analytical, detached pleasure (which can be, for instance, the sense of satisfaction arising from sad music).

There may even be a special separate set of aesthetic emotions which are only employed in the context of the arts, and which are entirely separate from our normal, everyday emotions.

We may experience feelings of transcendence and awe that come about only in the context of artistic experiences - when did you last experience transcendence and awe while doing the ironing - and some form of sadness might be another of these special aesthetic responses to music that is actually pleasurable because it is qualitatively different from normal, everyday sadness.

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