By Hunter Farris
*Soundfly proudly supports the Song Appeal podcast, which breaks down “why we like the music we like” using music theory, lyrical analysis, and psychology to explain the emotional significance of certain works of music. The following article first appeared as Episode 13 of Song Appeal’s second season. Listen to the original below.
The composer David Rosen once asked me, “Why do we like sad music so much?”
“Nothing puts me in a better mood than sad music. My all-time favorite band, The Cure, is famous for being one of the founders of the goth scene and have some of the most depressing music ever, but their album Disintegration works like magic. If I’m not having a great day, I put it on and I listen to the whole thing and I’m just… feeling better. It’s so hard to explain. And the influences of sad music doesn’t stop at just lyrics. Film scores and classical music can be some of the most beautifully affecting music out there. You’d think we just want to hear happy, poppy stuff, but for people like me (and I should add that I’m generally a really happy guy), it doesn’t get better than sad music.”
Now obviously a song can be sad because of the lyrics, but let’s look at how music can make a song sound sad even when there are no lyrics — and why we like that.
I’d like you to join me for just a moment at the back of a chapel. Up front, Paul Cardall, a musician who inspired a lot of my style, is playing a grand piano. For most of the performance I’ve been whispering back and forth with the person next to me, but halfway through the show, he starts playing his cover of Michael Giacchino’s “Life and Death” from the television show Lost.
Immediately, I close my mouth, close my eyes, and open my heart as I let myself swim in the sorrow and serenity of this song.
You see, “Life and Death” has a lot of meaning to me. I watched enough of Lost to fall in love with those characters, and then to watch some of them die slow, meaningful deaths was an emotional trigger for me at times. The score for Lost was also played a lot in my house growing up, especially to accentuate the emotional moments.
To me, this is a heartbreaking song. And when I hear a heartbreaking song, I have to ask: Why this theme is so sad? And why do we like — even love — listening to sad music?
There are a few different reasons why “Life and Death” can be considered “sad.” Let’s talk about just three of them. First, this song is a leitmotif — a short piece of music that represents something. Anything. A person, a place, a shark. But a leitmotif can only represent something to the audience when the music plays at the same time as we see that specific thing. It can’t just be one random time. And “Life and Death” is a perfect example of this, because every single time someone dies on Lost, they play this piece.
Remember how Pavlov’s dogs started to associate the sound of a bell with food? Or how Jim got Dwight to associate that computer sound with Altoids in The Office? When we hear this theme every time we watch people die on a show where we learned to love the characters, we start to mentally associate this theme with the feeling of impending death.
But it’s not just about what we see on screen. The song itself combines a sad-sounding chord with a sad-sounding melody. That way, it can musically make you feel melancholy, even if you’re just hearing the song and you haven’t seen the show.
One way it sounds sad is by switching back and forth between the I chord and the III- chord. Let’s focus on that III- chord for a moment, also called the “mediant chord.” It’s a really sad chord. Jake Lizzio would know — he makes it a habit to ask lots and lots of his students how different chords make them feel. How does he describe the mediant chord?
“Just one application of the mediant chord can instantly add sorrow and wist to an otherwise cheerful major key.”
The mediant chord isn’t the only sad part of this song. The melody itself sounds sad by focusing on notes that are a minor third apart. In 2010, Meagan Curtis and Jamshed Bharucha set up an experiment where they invited actors to say phrases with different emotions. Then they fed the recordings through a computer to find what intervals were the closest match to the actors’ speech patterns. They found that when the actors would say things sadly, they would naturally end phrases by going down a minor third — without even noticing it.
We’re so used to hearing people unconsciously end sad phrases with minor thirds that when we hear a lot of minor thirds in a row, we associate them with sadness. But of course, not every song that uses a minor third sounds sad. An article in The Atlantic, pointed out that Queen’s “We Are the Champions” uses three minor thirds in one line, but it doesn’t sound sad at all. They land on the lyrics: “We are”, “champions” and “of the.”
Back to “Life and Death,” 70% of the main melody’s note intervals are minor thirds — so this is a song that really takes advantage of the sadness that comes from that intervalic relationship. That’s how “Life and Death” is able to make us feel so melancholic without saying a word about someone leaving, someone dying, or a single lyrical word at all.
So, why do we like that feeling?
Now it’s time to revisit David Rosen’s initial question: “Why do we like sad music so much?”
Brea Murakami is a professional music therapist. Every day, she researches how music affects the brain in her work. And when she’s not working with music and clients, she’s talking about research about music and the brain on her podcast, Instru(mental).
A few weeks ago, I got to interview her and ask why some people like sad music. She replied:
“There has been a bunch of great research that looks at this sphere, like, what is rewarding about listening to music that may induce or may represent this unrewarding or undesired emotional state?
In one of those articles, three researchers at the University of Tokyo pointed out that ‘In general, sad music induces sadness in listeners, and sadness is regarded as an unpleasant emotion. If sad music actually evokes only unpleasant emotion, we would not listen to it.’”
And no, this isn’t just emotional masochism. According to another paper by researchers at The University of California, we feel more than just sadness when we listen to sad music. Many people feel nostalgia, peace, and wonder when they listen to sad music, especially if those people ranked high on openness to experience and empathy. There are a lot of good feelings we might get when we enjoy sad music, but for now, let’s focus on just one of them: Sad music allows us to have a good, controlled cry.
A Good, Controlled Cry
Murakami told me:
“The research shows that people who listen to sad music a lot often use these for self-regulation purposes — so being able to express sad or negative feelings, but in a way where they have more control over it.”
Every once in a while, we need a good cry. As one blogger put it, when it comes to listening to sad music:
“It’s not always about trying to feel good. Sometimes it’s about wanting to know that it’s okay to feel bad.”
This, too, is backed by science. Remember those researchers from the University of California who found that people feel nostalgia, peace, and wonder when they listen to sad music? One of them later wrote:
“The reward [behind a good cry] could be purely biochemical. We have all experienced the feeling of relief and serenity after a good cry. This is due to a cocktail of chemicals triggered by crying. A recent theory proposes that even a fictional sadness is enough to fool our body to trigger such an endocrine response, intended to soften the mental pain involved in real loss. This response is driven by hormones such as oxytocin and prolactin, which actually induce the feelings of comfort, warmth and mild pleasure in us. This mix of hormones is probably particularly potent when you take the actual loss and sadness out of the equation — which you can often do in music-induced sadness.“
What’s important here isn’t just that you get a good cry, but that you get a chance to control your sadness. The researchers from the University of Tokyo suggested that we can enjoy melancholy music because we can deal with sad emotions without having any threat to our physical well-being. Nothing’s technically wrong; you just feel safely sad.
And as Murakami told me:
“Some researchers think that sad music plays a different role from just being sad in a non-musical setting because we know that that sad song is going to end. We know that it’s going to come to a resolution. And if we choose to, we can listen to that again.”
And that’s the important part. You can be sad in a way that you control. You can let go of happiness for a moment, knowing you’ll be safe, and that when you come back, you’ll be happier than before. To me, “Life and Death” perfectly represents the sound of sadness. It focuses on a sad mediant chord and a sad minor third in the melody, and after we heard it over and over while we watched people die, we associated it with the sorrow of watching someone die.
But more importantly, it musically represents one reason why we like sad music. “Life and Death” isn’t just about making us sad. It’s about walking us through these deep emotions, until we come out the other side to find peace. And the song allows us the space to have a good, controlled cry, and then feel better afterwards.
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Hunter Farris runs the Song Appeal podcast, which focuses on the psychology behind why we like the music we like. His podcast on music theory and music psychology has appealed broadly enough for Hunter to speak at Comic-Con 2018, and is instructive enough to be used as homework by a music theory professor. He currently teaches people to play piano by ear and make their own arrangements of other people’s music.