Music and Vicarious Emotions

A recent study by Japanese researchers, published by Frontiers in Psychology, reveals that listening to sad music can, and often does, invoke positive emotions. These findings would seem to go against the grain, particularly for anyone who has been dumped and spent hours listening to classic breakup songs. The study set out to discover why we listen to sad music if it makes us sad. What’s the payoff?

By dividing responses to sad music into “perceived” emotion and “felt” emotion, researchers discovered that the two types of emotion don’t necessarily correspond. So, the listener may perceive the song to be sad, but nonetheless have a positive emotional response. The study involved 44 participants who were required to listen to excerpts of music and rate their emotional responses against 62 phrases or descriptive words on a scale ranging from zero to 4, with zero being “not at all” and 4 being “very much”. The test results revealed that, while the perception of the music was one of great sadness, the emotions the music induced tended to be romantic, blithe and sometimes sad, but not to the extent of the perceived sadness of the song. The researchers intend to carry out further research on the emotions induced by music, particularly focusing on why we experience the emotions we do, suggesting that these are “vicarious emotions”.

According to random website surveys, top sad breakup songs include Nothing Compares 2 U by Sinead O’Connor; Everybody Hurts and The One I Love by REM; Cry Me a River covered by numerous artists; Someone Like You and a host of other Adele songs; End of the Road by Boyz II Men and many more. Angry/gonna-get-on-with-my-life breakup anthems include Since You’ve Been Gone by Kelly Clarkson; I Will Survive by Gloria Gaynor; Irreplaceable by Beyonce; Hate (I Really Don’t Like You) by the Plain White T’s; and Forget It by Rodriguez.