“One good thing about music, when it hits you, you feel no pain.”

-Bob Marley

 

I like sad music. Sometimes I love it. Many of my favorite tunes are melancholy.

I’m listening to one of those now: Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in G Minor.

I’m also reading an interesting essay by Markham Heid:

“Why Listening to Sad Music Makes You Feel Better” 

In the essay, Heid talks about the “science behind the coping benefits of melancholy art.”

Studies on what some researchers call “pleasurable sadness” suggest that different people enjoy sad art for different reasons,” he says. One reason, according to Jonna Vuoskoski, an associate professor in the Department of Musicology at the University of Oslo in Norway, is that it evokes emotions that people enjoy having, such as nostalgia, peacefulness, and wonder.

Another reason, says Heid, is that it can act as a sort of safe therapy for people that have suffered emotional hardship. He quotes Tuomas Eerola, a professor of music cognition at Durham University in the UK: “The fact that the music or art is non-interactive is actually an advantage in situations of loss and sadness since there is no judgment, no probing. An artwork or song that a person can relate to can provide comfort without the baggage of social interaction with another human being.”

Oliver Sacks put it this way in his book Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain.Reflecting on a moment he experienced on the fifth anniversary of the September 11 attacks, he wrote:

“On my morning bike ride to Battery Park, I heard music as I approached the tip of Manhattan, and then saw and joined a silent crowd who sat gazing out to sea and listening to a young man playing Bach’s Chaconne in Don his violin. When the music ended and the crowd quietly dispersed, it was clear that the music had brought them some profound consolation, in a way that no words could ever have done.

“Music, uniquely among the arts, is both completely abstract and profoundly emotional. It has no power to represent anything particular or external, but it has a unique power to express inner states or feelings. Music can pierce the heart directly; it needs no mediation. One does not have to know anything about Dido and Aeneas to be moved by her lament for him; anyone who has ever lost someone knows what Dido is expressing. And there is, finally, a deep and mysterious paradox here, for while such music makes one experience pain and grief more intensely, it brings solace and consolation at the same time.”

This ties into a recent study by the University of South Florida on the musical preferences of people diagnosed with major depressive disorder. Contrary to what many assumed, the researchers concluded that such people do not choose sad music to intensify their negative feelings. They do it to relieve themselves from them. They report feeling “calmed” by melancholy music.

I have no doubt that listening to sad music moves people in positive ways. But despite the many studies that have been done, we still don’t know why. The explanations offered by researchers aren’t wrong, but they don’t feel like revelations. They are more like circular arguments – tautologies. Saying sad music is therapeutic isn’t any more informative than saying sad music makes you feel good.

Here’s my explanation: The most important thing we know – deep down at the bottom of our souls – is that we are temporary, that we are going to die. Everything we do to resist that terrible fact and everything we do to deny it is ultimately futile. Believe what we want about the universe and creation, our DNA  constantly informs us that one day our individual consciousness will cease to be.

Music is not only the universal language, it is the most profound language we have. It connects us not just to other people but to our inner selves. Sad music makes that connection. It helps us relax the egoistic impulse to resist the inevitable and come to peace with it.

And that is why sad music makes us feel better. It lightens the load of our denial and lets us understand that slipping into the unconscious universe may not be so terrible after all.

Want to listen to some sad music right now? Here are 19 suggestions:

* “Requiem Mass in D Minor” by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

* “Sono andati?” (from La Bohème) by Giacomo Puccini

* “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen

* “Hometown Glory” by Adele

* “Nimrod” (from Enigma Variations) by Edward Elgar

* “Back to Black” by Amy Winehouse

* “May It Be” by Enya

* “Adagio for Strings” (from String Quartet, Op. 11) by Samuel Barber

* “Stay With Me” by Sam Smith

* “Adagio in G Minor” by Tomaso Albinoni

* “I Can’t See Nobody” by Nina Simone

* “Come, Sweet Death” by Johann Sebastian Bach

* “Eleanor Rigby” by The Beatles

* Serenade for Strings in E Minor, Op. 20 (2ndmovement) by Edward Elgar

* “I Will Remember You” by Sarah McLachlan

* “Dido’s Lament” (from Dido and Aeneas) by Henry Purcell

* “Candle in the Wind” by Elton John

* Symphony No. 6 in B Minor, Op. 74(4thmovement) by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

* “Famous Blue Raincoat” by Leonard Cohen

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tautology (noun) 

Tautology (taw-TAH-luh-jee) is saying the same thing in different ways; the needless repetition of an idea. As I used it today: “I have no doubt that listening to sad music moves people in positive ways. But… we still don’t know why. The explanations offered by researchers aren’t wrong, but they don’t feel like revelations. They are more like circular arguments – tautologies. Saying sad music is therapeutic isn’t any more informative than saying sad music makes you feel good.”

Continue Reading