When I make the executive decision to settle in with a favorite chick flick and a bowl of popcorn, it may not be for the reason you think.
When I search through my musical CDs for one specific symphony that leads my moods from melancholy to blissful, eventually landing me on “deliciously content” – that, too, may be for a surprising purpose.
Both of these outlets offer distraction and pleasure, but equally, they provide me mechanisms for emotional release; I will be taken on a journey through highs and lows, and the tears will flow unimpeded. The entirety of the experience may include an ambiguous sadness that is somehow assuaged, and after the fact, I will feel “lightened.”
Why Are We Drawn to Sad Music?
In “Why We Like Sad Music,” Ai Kawakami explains the pull of our heart strings when those minor chords vibrate through our systems. His New York Times essay elaborates on the psychological responses evoked by music we perceive as sorrowful or bittersweet.
Mr. Kawakami clarifies:
Sad music can induce intense emotions, yet the type of sadness evoked by music also seems pleasing in its own way. Why? Aristotle famously suggested the idea of catharsis: that by overwhelming us with an undesirable emotion, music (or drama) somehow purges us of it.
Commenting on his recent study, distinctions are made between this reactive sadness versus the everyday emotion we try so hard not to experience.
… What if, despite their apparent similarity, sadness in the realm of artistic appreciation is not the same thing as sadness in everyday life?
How Music Affects Your Mood
Don’t you feel more upbeat when you put on music that gets the juices flowing, the foot tapping, and maybe encourages you to dance around the room – just a little? What if the music is also associated with pleasant memories or a happy stage in life?
Referring to felt and perceived emotions as overlapping, Mr. Kawakami continues:
… my colleagues and I explored the idea that “musical emotion” encompasses both the felt emotion that the music induces in the listener and the perceived emotion that the listener judges the music to express…
… felt emotion did not correspond exactly to perceived emotion. Although the sad music was both perceived and felt as “tragic” (e.g., gloomy, meditative and miserable), the listeners did not actually feel the tragic emotion as much as they perceived it…
Something similar happened with the happy music…
The Nature of “Vicarious” Emotions
Vicarious emotions are defined as experienced indirectly or secondhand:
… experienced in the imagination through the feelings or actions of another person.
“I could glean vicarious pleasure from the struggles of my imaginary film friends”
To my surprise, poking around the Internet yielded mentions of empathy and vicarious emotions, in other words, being embarrassed for someone else, or feeling distress for someone else, though yes – we have the notion of vicarious pleasure (being happy for another) – yet I uncovered little that reaches into the realms to which Mr. Kawakami refers.
In fact, Mr. Kawakami seems to hypothesize that these differences are due to the fact that music encourages vicarious emotions – we experience sadness (for example) in an indirect or more oblique fashion.
The Stendhal Syndrome
Personally, I am brought to tears in front of certain works of art, experiencing a remarkable range of emotions that I am hard-pressed to articulate. I might suggest this is a “mild” version of what is known as the Stendhal Effect or Stendhal Syndrome – an extreme physical reaction in the face of “sublime beauty.”
For me, the experience is akin to full-blown, multidimensional, multi-sensory joy. My heart beats faster and I invariably shed a few tears. It is a sumptuous banquet indeed, not unlike falling in love.
Strangely, it’s similar to what I feel when I hear the music I’ve mentioned that encapsulates a significant number of human emotions – lightheartedness, fear, sadness, anger, hopefulness, despair, jubilation.
Mr. Kawakami describes the vicarious emotions we feel with sad music as “free from the essential unpleasantness of their genuine counterparts.” And I see his point. Yet when listening to the symphony I’m thinking of, or in the presence of what I consider masterworks of modern and contemporary art, I know myself to be so filled with the exquisite experience of beauty and meaning that the emotions feel very “genuine” to me.
Your Response to the Arts?
Noting that vicarious emotions demand additional study, Mr. Kawakami makes me realize that we don’t discuss this aspect of our affective lives. Is it because we’re embarrassed and thus hesitant to say we weep over music or movies – or is this the only way some of us allow expressions of emotion?
Do we automatically fall back on the presumption of “catharsis” as the explanation of our release? That this non-threatening call to sadness and its display somehow purges us of unpleasant feelings? Perhaps the Stendhal Effect, too, deserves more examination in a contemporary framework. Might the response to sad music be its harmonic first cousin?
As for those chick flicks that may bring a laugh and also a tear – I’m a sucker for the antics of Bridget Jones – I count on the gush I feel as an acceptable and predictable outlet. It does its job effectively, much like my go-to symphony or the high in front of a de Kooning or Diebenkorn – each, satisfying sustenance for my spirit, and no doubt, my emotional well-being.