Is musical sadness a thing?

new blog post on music and emotions

Is musical sadness a thing?

It is well-known that music can evoke emotional responses. To researchers, sadness is particularly interesting as a response to music (Warrenburg, 2020a). When listening to music, we can both perceive and experience emotional responses. Most interestingly, two people can listen to the same piece of music yet have differing emotional responses. It is this difference in emotional responses which attracts researchers.

However, researchers define musical sadness differently and this creates some confusion when trying to compare and understand emotional responses to music. Furthermore, musical sadness may be a combination of more than one emotional state, some of which may be incompatible. For example, researchers (Peltola & Eerola, 2016) found that three kind of emotions were elicited from listening to sad music: grief, melancholia, and sweet sorrow. Of these three emotions, only grief represents a negatively valenced experience. What this tells us is that sad music can evoke both positive and negative emotional responses.

In fact, research has yet to identify music which truly evokes sadness. This may be due to methodological issues in prior research which has failed to clearly define musical sadness. However, recent research has found that music sadness may be a combination of two distinctive affective states: melancholia and grief (Huron, 2015).

Experiences of grief often occur after the loss of a loved one, or the end of a close relationship. Feeling of grief tend to be negatively valenced and associated with high physiological arousal. Melancholy is understood as an emotion usually experienced when a person needs to be self-reflective about a failure and is associated with low physiological arousal.

Personality factors and musical sadness

Furthermore, differences in emotional reactions to musical sadness may also be explained in part by differences in the personalty types of listeners. Some variance in findings is to be expected when listening to sad music due to personality factors such as the Big 5 Personality Traits—extraversion, agreeableness, openness, conscientiousness, and neuroticism.

New Research

A recent study has explored the area of emotional responses to sad music and how personality may affect these emotional responses to sad music. The study investigated emotional responses to sad music where respondents listened to excerpts of music and were given a choice of 24 emotion choices for each piece listened to.

The Results

The results found that people experienced different emotions when listening to grieving vs melancholic music. Listening to grieving music resulted in negative emotional experiences 75% of the time and positive emotional experiences 25% of the time. After listening to melancholic music, people felt negative emotions 65% of the time and positive emotions 35% of the time.

The results also demonstrated that responses to melancholy or sad music can be partially explained by self-reported personality characteristics. In terms of personality types and responses to sad music, the study found people who scored higher on conscientiousness experienced more positive emotions than people who score lower on this trait. People who scored higher on extraversion and agreeableness experienced less positive emotions than those who score lower on these traits. In ratings of negative emotional experiences, participants who score high on agreeableness experienced more negative emotions than those who scored lower on tis trait.

These results show that people tend to experience more positive or mixed emotions in responses to melancholic music than to grieving music. Melancholic music led to feelings of sadness, melancholy, depressed, reflective, nostalgic, rainy, dreary, death, relaxed and calm. Grieving music led to feelings of anticipation and uneasiness, tension and intensity, crying, distraught, and turmoil, death and loss, and epic, dramatic, and cinematic feelings.


The point of this research is to understand that music’s influence on emotions and emotional states is very nuanced. Music thought to be perceived as sad with having the ability to evoke musical sadness emotions may not be so clear cut. Sadness in this study was reported as grieving music (high arousal) or melancholic music (low arousal) both of which elicited different emotional responses.

Perhaps our understanding of ‘sad’ music and ‘musical sadness’ could be thought of as belonging to a much larger gamut possible emotional responses and that the listener behind the ear may respond to passages of musical sadness not in the way we anticipate.

© iteachpiano 2021

Warrenburg, L. A. (2020, Vol. 3 – 2020). People experience different emotions from melancholic and grieving music. Music & Science, 3.

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