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There Will Be Tears: The Science of the Sad Song
In this fascinating segment, musicologist David Huron explains why so many of us (50% of the population!) love to listen to sad music. As Huron mentions, usually people try to avoid negative emotions like sadness. So why do we turn to dramatic string adagios and mournful Chris Isaak ballads when we could be listening to Cee Lo Green in a constant, bouncy loop? Part of it, says Huron, is the contrast. When you feel sad for a few moments, particularly what he calls "pseudo-sadness," where there's no real reason for the emotion (crucially differentiated from grief or depression), it feels even better when you stop. Writer Amanda Stern weighs in too, describing the difference between the music that makes her sad and the music that makes her cry. The way I see it, a tale of woe like George Jones' "He Stopped Loving Her Today," is brutally, wonderfully sad, but it's the soaring melancholy of the music that makes the Reciitar! aria from the opera Pagliacci a tear-jerker.
So just why is it so delicious to cry to a song? It's that same residue-free release one gets from crying to a book or movie. I love to read Edith Wharton novels and weep. That doesn't mean I like to be sad in my life—as Stern says, we are always trying to avoid unpleasant emotions in real life. But when you can experience the catharsis without the personal pain, live through powerful emotions without having to actually, you know, live through them, it's a powerful moment, perhaps the very reason we seek to create and experience art in the first place. So in answer to the question, am I listening to sad music because I am depressed—No, I'm listening to it because I'm not depressed, and because in 3 minutes or so the exquisite sadness will end, and go back to being someone else's pain.
Listen to the entire Soundcheck clip to learn how sadness is like an allergy, the scientific explanation for why some music elicits tears, and to hear the saddest song of all time.
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