Music Colloquium: How can ‘sad’ music bring pleasure to listeners

Sweet Sorrow: How can music associated with sadness bring pleasure to listeners? The speaker is Professor Tuomas Eerola (Durham University).


Despite the recent attention paid to how sad music is able to generate pleasurable, sadness-related experiences, the exact nature of these experiences and the underlying mechanisms are unknown. This talk summarizes insights concerning (i) the structure and content of such experiences; and (ii) the soundness of key explanations for enjoying sad music. In the first part of the investigation, three approaches to understanding the structure of music-induced sadness were adopted.

In the first approach, qualitative analysis, participants’ responses from a large online survey about music-induced sadness were subjected to thematic content analysis. These diverse experiences were classified into three themes.

In the second approach, several large-scale surveys were carried out to further identify the reasons, emotions and mechanisms for engaging with music associated with sadness. This led to a structure of emotions consistent with the first approach, where three factors emerged, labelled as “Grief”, “Sweet Sorrow”, and “Being Moved”.

In the third approach, a series of listening experiments was conducted to investigate what kinds of emotions are experienced in response to nominally sad yet unfamiliar music. The results of these three approaches challenge the notion that sadness associated with music is a uniform emotional experience.

In the second part of the investigation, we tested a consolation theory involving specific biochemical substrates (prolactin) that have been claimed to explain the pleasurable experience of sadness (Huron, 2011). The results of all these sets of empirical studies suggest that this complex phenomenon needs to be considered within biological, psychological and cultural levels. In a new integrative framework, I claim that the paradox of enjoying something negative can be fruitfully framed as restricted yet connected hedonic shifts.

About the speaker

Tuomas Eerola is Professor of Music Cognition at Durham University. His research involves empirical studies of music, particularly how emotions are induced by music, and how we synchronize with music. He approaches these topics by combining experiments, including physiological or neural responses, and computational modelling. He has published on topics including musical similarity, melodic expectations, perception of rhythm and timbre, and perception of emotions, and secured major grants from Google, the Academy of Finland, and the AHRC. One of his roles at the University is to run the Music and Science Lab, which advocates these activities and hosts a team of experts from PhD students to other academics (