Kind of Blue (Or why sad music is like Neapolitan ice cream) – Hosted by Cafe Sci

By Diego Astorga De Ita

As you go up and down South Road you must have noticed many students with their headphones on, walking to the rhythm of whatever music they’re listening to. Maybe like me you’re one of those students. Maybe you listen to rock, maybe you like electronic music, perhaps salsa, or sensual bachata. Maybe it’s folk, or jazz, or blues. It doesn’t matter what genre, there is always something interesting to listen to. However, there is one type of music that might seem particularly strange when you consider it: sad music.


Think about it. When you listen to music you like, you sing to the lyrics, you feel what the musician is saying; you try to get into the sounds. Why then would you want to sing that “nobody loves me but my mother, and she could be jivin’ too” or that “if there’s nothing shakin’ come here this July, I’m gonna roll myself up in a big ball and die”? Those aren’t very nice things to think of yourself, or of your mother for that matter. Still we love these songs. We sing these songs. We listen to them over and over again. Be it the blues, britpop ballads, grunge, or bossa nova, we like sad music. But why?


Well, there are many possible answers, and that’s what Professor Tuomas Eerola talked about in our second Café Scientific (28th November 2016): “Good grief! The paradox of pleasure and sadness in music.”


Professor Tuomas Eerola Photo credit: Justin Marinelli

So, why do we enjoy music that is sad? How do you explain this paradox?


Some would say that we don’t really enjoy sad music, we enjoy the beauty of music, it’s an aesthetic experience and the “sad” part is just coincidental. Others think that sad music tricks our brain into producing “feel-good” chemicals, the sort of things that keep us afloat when we’re going through something really bad, and so this sad music acts like a good cry. Others might think that we actually enjoy the sadness of music, and since we know that this is just a piece of music and not an actual tragedy, we can let our guard down and enjoy the sad feeling. There are many possible answers. But which one is right?


To try and figure this out, or at least to understand it a bit better, Professor Eerola, with other Finnish academics, conducted and analysed a few interviews (lots of interviews actually) asking people why they listen to sad music, and what it makes them feel. What they found from all the answers they got is that there is no one answer to what sad music makes us feel and why. Some people listen to sad music to remember past events and reflect upon them –a breakup, the loss of a loved one, a tragedy –; others like to feel like someone else knows what they’re going through; some feel better after listening, others feel miserable, and others get some sort of bittersweet melancholy. In Tuomas’ words: there are three different flavours of sadness. Some are good, some are bad, and some are somewhere in-between. Which flavour you get depends on what you associate with a particular song, what it makes you remember, what your story is. In that sense sad music is a bit like Neapolitan ice cream: there’s three flavours and depending on who you are you’ll end up serving yourself more of one of the three.

Emine ponders the complexities of sad music. Photo credit: Justin Marinelli

So does this mean that sad music is all in our heads and it’s just sad when we make it so? Is there no real sadness in the music itself? Well not exactly. Professor Eerola shared another experiment with us: What happens when someone is presented with music that is “sad” and that is unfamiliar to them? Will they feel something?

Apparently they will.

In this second experiment large groups of people listened to unfamiliar sad music and their responses were measured. Again the different flavours of sadness emerged: the good one, the bad one and the sort-of-neutral one. And one more thing: among the interesting findings of the experiment is that the people that were “really moved” by this unfamiliar sad music also got high empathy scores, so it would seem that there is a correlation between being empathetic and really feeling music.


Overall it seems that sadness is not always a bad thing; you can feel a bittersweet melancholic longing that will make you smile (like the Portuguese “saudades“) or you might just feel miserable; it depends a bit on your personal story, and on the meaning you give to particular pieces of music. Nevertheless, music can also induce sadness (or rather these different “saddnesses”) even if you hadn’t heard it before. In other words there is no easy answer.


A lot of questions came up after hearing all this: Are these constants across cultures? Or is it a localised phenomenon? What part does society play in the way we react to certain pieces of music? What about the lyrics –or lack thereof? Are our emotional reactions to music and sound an essential part of what makes us human? An interesting discussion ensued.

Photo credit: Justin Marinelli

There is still a lot to find out about how sad music makes us feel. For Tuomas Eerola’s team the next step is to see what chemicals get into our blood when we induce sadness through music. For us there is always the blues.

What about you? How do sad songs make you feel?


We’d like to thank Professor Tuomas Eerola for sharing his research on the sweet sorrows of music in Ustinov’s Café Scientific. If you’d like to know more about our events look us up in Facebook as “Ustinov Global Citizenship Programme – Durham University”.

If you would like to get involved with Café Scientific or would like to find out more, please email

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