American author Susan Cain is a big fan of sadness.
Specifically, she has a deep interest in sad music and the “mysterious and seemingly paradoxical” joy or pleasure it can elicit.
Mrs. Cain tried to understand why sad music – that of Leonard Cohen, for example – moves her more than others.
Understand it was made trickier by a certain stigma around sadness. We tend to avoid sad emotions as if there’s something to be ashamed of, Ms. Cain argues.
“We all know that life contains these two poles of joy and sadness and all that…and yet we’re not supposed to talk about half of our emotional experience,” she said. ABC RN Life Matters.
But in a world filled with “toxic positivity,” she says, exploring feelings of “sadness, heartache, or longing” isn’t just okay — it’s essential to living a full, meaningful life.
The “mystery” of sad music
When Mrs. Cain listens to melancholy music, it doesn’t make her sad.
On the contrary, the music gives him a “sense of connection” to others. It inspires feelings of “love and gratitude” to the musician or the music “for being able to turn what obviously started in grief into something beautiful and even transcendent”.
The human ability to “transform pain into beauty” is, she says, “the mystery of sad music”.
She’s been thinking about it for decades – and she’s not the only one.
Much research has been devoted to understanding the connection between music and grief.
Mrs. Cain points out research by MIT economist Karol J Borowiecki, who studied the letters of Beethoven, Mozart and Liszt to understand how happy or sad they were. He then correlated these letters with the music tracks they were producing at that time.
“[Professor Borowiecki] found that the most profound pieces of music, those considered by music historians to be the greatest, tended to be written during times of heartbreak,” says Cain.
He wrote that the research offered insight into “how negative emotions can provide fertile material on which the creative person [can] to draw”.
“Sadness becomes comfort”
Australian singer-songwriter Kate KS says some of her songs are so sad she cried while writing them.
She has chosen to set many difficult or sad times in her life to music and says she finds the process “extremely cathartic”.
It can also be for those who listen.
“It’s a common thing for people to say after a concert that at some point I made them cry,” says Ms. KS.
She thinks it’s because the audience “feels seen” in these sad songs.
“People realize, oh, it’s not just me feeling this. Someone else is feeling this.
“It’s sharing an experience.”
No paradox at all?
The question of why people might enjoy listening to sad music has also been considered by scholars and thinkers, dating back to Aristotle.
Like Ms Cain, Emery Schubert, professor of music at the University of New South Wales, has also pondered the question for decades.
For years he, too, viewed people’s enjoyment of sad music as a strange paradox.
Lately, however, he has started to change his way of thinking.
“It’s a more complex story,” he says now, suggesting that the apparent conflict of appreciating sad music might, in fact, be exaggerated.
“I don’t think that’s how humans work,” he says.
On the contrary, Professor Schubert argues that “different classes of experiences can occur in parallel”.
We can experience many feelings and emotions at the same time, he says. “It doesn’t matter, because we are complex humans.”
Why Music Makes Us Feel Anything
Perhaps then the question should be: why does music make us feel anything?
Professor Schubert highlights the work of music psychology professor Patrik Juslin, considered by many to be the world’s number one music researcher.
According to Professor Juslin, there are seven ways music makes us feel something, says Professor Schubert.
One is the contagious effect of music, whereby you “catch” what it expresses simply by listening to it, “just like you catch a cold,” he says.
Another is the ability of music to evoke a certain memory and the emotions attached to that memory.
Conditioning is yet another way music can make us feel. “In Western culture, we learn that something in the minor key, in the minor key, usually sounds sadder than something in the major key,” says Professor Schubert.
Can’t all art make us feel things?
Well, not according to early 18th century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer.
Professor Schubert says that Schopenhauer and other great philosophers argued that all art forms other than music “represent something about the human world” and “remind us of those real-life situations”.
They believed that music, on the other hand, “is the only art form that doesn’t need to represent. It can just exist in that sound form”, says Professor Schubert.
Ms. KS says another thing that can differentiate music from, say, visual arts is that it is often created in groups.
Seeing or hearing “exceptional musicians, true masters of their instrument” playing together creates “moments of synergy…with a lot of emotion”, she says.
“It’s extremely powerful.”
Joy is easy; pain is redemptive
Mrs. Cain is clear in distinguishing sadness or melancholy from depression or clinical depression.
The distinction it draws is a feeling of “happy melancholy” or a “bittersweet” state.
Indeed, the title of his latest book exploring this subject is Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing make us Whole.
Mrs. Cain thinks there is pleasure in “recognition that light and darkness, joy and sorrow [and] bitter and sweet are always and forever associated”.
“There’s just an inherent impermanence in everything and everyone we love the most.”
And with the awareness of this state comes “a really deep, piercing joy at the beauty of the world,” she says.
“Transforming pain into beauty” is “redemptive”, Ms Cain says – and “at the heart of everything”, including music.
“The happy side of ourselves, which takes care of itself. That part is easy,” she says.
“It’s the pain part that’s tricky.”
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