Other scientists, including Patrik Juslin, a music psychologist at Uppsala University in Sweden, argue that such findings clarify little about the value of sad music. He wrote in a paper, “They simply move the burden of explanation from one level, ‘Why does the second movement of Beethoven’s Eroica symphony arouse sadness?’, to another level, ‘Why does a slow tempo arouse sadness?’”
Instead, Dr. Juslin and others have proposed that there are cognitive mechanisms through which sadness can be induced in listeners. Unconscious reflexes in the brain stem; the synchronization of rhythm to some internal cadence, such as a heartbeat; conditioned responses to particular sounds; triggered memories; emotional contagion; a reflective evaluation of the music — all seem to play some role. Maybe, because sadness is such an intense emotion, its presence can prompt a positive empathic reaction: Feeling someone’s sadness can move you in some prosocial way.
“You’re feeling just alone, you feel isolated,” Dr. Knobe said. “And then there’s this experience where you listen to some music, or you pick up a book, and you feel like you’re not so alone.”
To test that hypothesis, he, Dr. Venkatesan and George Newman, a psychologist at the Rotman School of Management, set up a two-part experiment. In the first part, they gave one of four song descriptions to more than 400 subjects. One description was of a song that “conveys deep and complex emotions” but was also “technically very flawed.” Another described a “technically flawless” song that “does not convey deep or complex emotions.” The third song was described as deeply emotional and technically flawless, and the fourth as technically flawed and unemotional.
The subjects were asked to indicate, on a seven-point scale, whether their song “embodies what music is all about.” The goal was to clarify how important emotional expression in general — of joy, sadness, hatred or whatever — was to music on an intuitive level. On the whole, subjects reported that deeply emotional but technically flawed songs best reflected the essence of music; emotional expression was a more salient value than technical proficiency.
In the second part of the experiment, involving 450 new subjects, the researchers gave each participant 72 descriptions of emotional songs, which expressed feelings including “contempt,” “narcissism,” “inspiration” and “lustfulness.” For comparison, they also gave participants prompts that described a conversational interaction in which someone expressed their feelings. (For example: “An acquaintance is talking to you about their week and expresses feelings of wistfulness.”) On the whole, the emotions that subjects felt were deeply rooted to “what music is all about” were also those that made people feel more connected to one another in conversation: love, joy, loneliness, sadness, ecstasy, calmness, sorrow.
Mario Attie-Picker, a philosopher at Loyola University Chicago who helped lead the research, found the results compelling. After considering the data, he proposed a relatively simple idea: Maybe we listen to music not for an emotional reaction — many subjects reported that sad music, albeit artistic, was not particularly enjoyable — but for the sense of connection to others. Applied to the paradox of sad music: Our love of the music is not a direct appreciation of sadness, it’s an appreciation of connection. Dr. Knobe and Dr. Venkatesan were quickly on board.
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