Why sad songs can be feel-good and noise music can be nice

Princess Ojiaku

Princess Ojiaku

is a science writer whose work has appeared in Scientific AmericanPopular Science, and Pacific Standard, among others. She lives in Chicago. 

700 words

Edited by Pam Weintraub

Republish
Lauren C/Flickr
Lauren C/Flickr

Princess Ojiaku

Princess Ojiaku

is a science writer whose work has appeared in Scientific AmericanPopular Science, and Pacific Standard, among others. She lives in Chicago. 

700 words

Edited by Pam Weintraub

Republish
Lauren C/Flickr
Lauren C/Flickr

Princess Ojiaku

is a science writer whose work has appeared in Scientific AmericanPopular Science, and Pacific Standard, among others. She lives in Chicago. 

700 words

Edited by Pam Weintraub

Republish

Adele’s heartbreaking ballad Hello, about a lost lover, has topped the Billboard Hot 100 for weeks, while 25, the album from which it comes, broke records for the highest number of album sales in its first week (3.48 million). Sad songs can be immensely popular, often moving us in a more memorable way than happier ones. The strange thing about sad songs is that people will readily consume music that can leave them feeling bad or recalling unpleasant events. When given the choice, why wouldn’t people listen to uplifting music instead of songs that could depress them?

Sad music might make people feel vicarious unpleasant emotions, found a study published last year in Frontiers in Psychology. But this experience can ultimately be pleasurable because it allows a negative emotion to exist indirectly, and at a safe distance. Instead of feeling the depths of despair, people can feel nostalgia for a time when they were in a similar emotional state: a non-threatening way to remember a sadness.

People who are very empathetic are more likely to take pleasure in the emotional experience of sad music, according to another study in Frontiers of PsychologyOthers enjoy sad songs because they help them return to an emotionally balanced state, according to a review in Frontiers in Human Neurosciencepublished in 2015. And those more open to varied experiences might enjoy the songs because the unique emotions that come up when listening to the music fulfill their need for novelty in thoughts and feelings. 

In fact, the quest for variety could also explain why some people crave dissonant or experimental music full of uneven, cacophonous or downright disorienting sound. Musical genres such as noise, no wave and experimental rock have a dedicated fan and artist base in thriving underground scenes. Research suggests that people who are more open to novelty are more likely to take pleasure in the uncommon elements found in these non-traditional types of music. A 2012 study in Psychology of Music found a positive correlation between openness to experience and liking jazz, a genre that often defies a traditional pop structure.

Being open could make a person more prone to immersion in both unconventional songs and genres. But repeated exposure is the key to a deeper attachment. I asked my friend, the musician Angela Seo, about her burgeoning love of noise music, which has noise literally embedded in the songs. Seo and I used to play together in a pop band, but one of her current projects, Xiu Xiu, is an art rock band that favours more experimental and grim musical elements. ‘When we are young,’ Seo said, ‘we become used to the structure and the melodies and harmonies in most of our pop songs. But then you start to open yourself up to the different types of music and realise that there’s so much out there. It was a gradual process for me. I just found myself fascinated and intrigued by dissonant and noise music… At first it’s just novelty… then you start learning about the subtlety and nuances of [the music].’

It is the ability to explore off the beaten track that makes ‘irregular’ music so much fun. Seo often improvises noise music with friends, creating by feel rather than by structure. ‘Trying to drive music and create movement and emotions in a song without the usual tropes of rhythms or choruses and melody is really interesting,’ she said.

In the end, an individual’s love of a particular song or genre of music could have roots in their specific personality – a finding that brings us a little closer to understanding how music reflects and influences our lives.

 

Republish

Princess Ojiaku

is a science writer whose work has appeared in Scientific AmericanPopular Science, and Pacific Standard, among others. She lives in Chicago. 

aeon.co
Get Aeon straight
to your inbox
Join our newsletter Sign up
Follow us on
Facebook
Like

‘Aeon is what readers and writers dream about. It is wide in scope, without ever being shallow. It offers stimulating issues, yet never seeking to be tantalising.

Publishing at its best. I love it.’

Professor Luciano Floridi, University of Oxford

‘Thought-provoking, eclectic, open-minded and user friendly.

Aeon is like no other site on the internet.’

Larry D, UK, Friend of Aeon

‘Every morning I look forward to seeing what’s in your email and there isn’t a day that goes by without reading or watching something you guys have published.

It’s like an oasis of sanity in a world gone mad.’

Jack D, USA, Friend of Aeon

‘Aeon’s combination of intelligence, integrity and flair is vanishingly rare – and I am very grateful for it. It is becoming an indispensable presence in the digital world for those who believe that ideas matter.’

Tom Chatfield, writer and commentator on digital culture

‘I read one article and decided that I wanted to support an organisation that promotes critical thinking around ideas that affect our everyday lives.’

John T, Canada, Friend of Aeon

Aeon is a registered charity committed to the spread of knowledge. Our mission is to create a sanctuary online for serious thinking.
But we can’t do it without you.

Aeon is a registered charity committed to the spread of knowledge and a cosmopolitan worldview.
But we can’t do it without you.

Essay/
Mental Health
Temperamentally blessed

Just one in five people will be lucky enough to avoid mental health problems throughout their life. How do they do it?

Elizabeth Svoboda

Essay/
Mental Health
The usefulness of dread

My anxiety has been lifelong but I would not wish it away. It has made me the philosopher – and person – that I am today

Samir Chopra