The Sense of Music

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Scholars have tried to understand why people enjoy sad music, even though they don’t necessarily like feeling sad. Some theories suggest that these tunes help individuals experience catharsis. Others say they promote evolutionary advantages.

In a new study, researcher Joshua Knobe and his colleagues wanted to explore what lies behind these songs and their appeal, the New York Times reported.

In their two-part experiment, they gave more than 400 participants one of four song descriptions, ranging from emotionally deep but technically flawed to technically flawless but lacking emotion. Participants rated how well each song “embodies what music is all about” on a seven-point scale.

The results showed that emotionally deep songs – even with technical flaws – were considered to best represent the essence of music. Emotional expression was valued more than technical proficiency, the team noted.

In the second part of the experiment, the researchers gave 450 new participants descriptions of emotional songs that expressed various feelings including “contempt,” “narcissism,” and
“lustfulness.” They also provided participants with prompts that described interactions in which someone expressed their feelings.

The authors found the emotions that participants felt were strongly linked to what music represents, and fostered a sense of connection in conversations.

The findings suggested that people listen to music for the sense of connection it provides, not the emotional reaction it causes. That also seems to be the case with sad music, the authors explained.

Knobe’s team acknowledged that there were so many questions from the study, such as who are the listeners connecting to when they listen to the sad tunes.

Still, they concluded that their results felt right, even if they couldn’t fully explain the phenomenon.

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