US author Susan Cain is a big fan of sadness.
More specifically, she is deeply interested in sad music, and the “mysterious and seemingly paradoxical” joy or pleasure that it can elicit.
Ms Cain has been trying to understand why sad music – that of Leonard Cohen, for example – moves her more than other kinds.
Understand it has been made trickier by a certain stigma around sadness. We tend to shy away from sad emotions as if they’re something to be ashamed of, Ms Cain argues.
“We all know that life contains these two poles of joy and sorrow and everything in between … and yet, we’re not supposed to talk about one half of our emotional experience,” she tells ABC RN’s Life Matters.
But in a world filled with “toxic positivity”, she says exploring feelings of “sadness or heartache or longing” is not just OK – it’s essential to living a full and meaningful life.
The ‘mystery’ of sad music
When Ms Cain listens to melancholic music, it doesn’t make her feel sad.
Rather, the music gives her a “sense of connection” to others. It inspires feelings of “love and gratitude” to the musician or music “for being able to transform what obviously began in sorrow into something that’s 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 alone.
Plenty of research has been devoted towards understanding the connection between music and sorrow.
Ms Cain points to research by MIT economist Karol J Borowiecki, who studied the letters of Beethoven, Mozart, and Liszt to figure out how happy or sad they were. He then correlated those letters with the pieces of music they were producing at that time.
“[Professor Borowiecki] found that the deeper pieces of music, the ones that are considered by music historians to be their greatest, tended to be written during times of sorrow,” Ms Cain says.
He wrote that the research offered insight into “how negative emotions can provide fertile material upon which the creative person [can] draw”.
‘Sadness becomes a comfort’
Australian singer-songwriter Kate KS says some of her songs are so sad she cried while writing them.
She’s chosen to put many difficult or sad moments in her life to music, and says she finds the process “extremely cathartic”.
It can be for those who listen, too.
“It is a common thing that people will say after a gig that at a certain moment I brought them to tears,” Ms KS says.
She believes that’s because audiences “feel seen” in those sad songs.
“People realize, oh, it’s not only me that feels like this. Someone else feels like this.
“It’s sharing an experience.”
No paradox at all?
The question of why people might enjoy listening to sorrowful music has also been contemplated by researchers and thinkers, dating as far back as Aristotle.
Like Ms Cain, Emery Schubert, a professor of music at the University of New South Wales, has also been pondering the question for decades.
For years, he too considered people’s enjoyment of sad music to be a strange paradox.
Lately, though, he’s begun to change his thinking.
“It’s a more complex story,” he says now, suggesting that the apparent conflict of enjoying sad music might, in fact, be overblown.
“I don’t think that’s how humans work,” he says.
Rather, Professor Schubert argues that “different classes of experience that can occur in parallel”.
We can experience multiple feelings and emotions at the same time, he says. “It’s not a big deal, because we’re complex humans”.
Why music makes us feel anything
Perhaps, then, the question should be, why does music make us feel anything at all?
Professor Schubert points to 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, explains Professor Schubert.
One is music’s contagious effect, whereby you “catch” whatever it is expressing simply by listening to it, “just like you catch a cold”, he says.
Another is music’s ability 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, minor mode, generally sounds sadder than something in the major key,” Professor Schubert explains.
Can’t all art make us feel stuff?
Well, not according to early 18th century philosophizing Arthur Schopenhauer.
Professor Schubert says Schopenhauer and other great philosophers argued all arts forms other than music “represent something about the human world” and “remind us of these real-life situations”.
They believed music, on the other hand, “is the only art form that does not need to represent. It can just exist in this sound form”, Professor Schubert says.
Ms KS says another thing that can set music apart from, say, visual arts, is that it’s often created in a group.
Seeing or hearing “exceptional musicians, real masters of their instrument” perform together creates “moments of synergy … with a lot of emotion”, she says.
“It’s extremely powerful.”
Joy is easy; bread is redemptive
Ms Cain is clear to distinguish sadness or melancholy from depression or clinical depression.
The distinction she draws is a feeling of “happy melancholy” or a “bittersweet” state.
Indeed, the title of her latest book exploring this topic is Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing make us Whole.
Ms Cain believes there is pleasure to be derived from the “recognition that light and dark, joy and sorrow [and] bitter and sweet are always and forever paired”.
“There’s just an inherent impermanence to everything and everyone that we love most.”
And with the awareness of that state comes “a really deep and 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 joyful side of ourselves, that takes care of itself. That part’s easy,” she says.
“It’s the bread part that’s tricky.”
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