Why are some people more attracted to sad music than others?

Some people are more attracted to listening to sad music than others. I discussed in previous post about perceived differences in personality types and attraction to sad music. There are a number of other factors not related to personality types which may attract some people to the enjoyment of listening to sad music.

Most intriguing is why some people are attracted to music which invokes negative emotions. Research (Schubert 2007, 2010, 2013) suggests that up to one-third of people are attracted to music that evokes negative emotions. Furthermore, individuals why a high propensity to become absorbed in an activity are more likely to enjoy sad music (Ladinig & Schellenberg, 2012).

Absorption is the ability to dissociate or seperate what is normally experienced and is argued to be a way for individuals to switch off pain circuits allowing them to experience an increased activation. This is believed to generate positive affect even when the experience is of negative emotions such as via listening to sad music. People who are easily absorbed in an activity derive an increased intensity and pleasure in the experience.

The opposite of absorption is the maladaptive experience of rumination. Rumination is repetition of negative thoughts, often involuntary, and for some, are a way of maintaining a negative mood. Generally, high levels of rumination and negative mood experiences are not enjoyable, and thus a maladaptive. Listening to sad music for some invokes rumination, thus ensuing the sad music is associated with negative mood and not inherently enjoyable.

The consequence of these two states—absorption or rumination—may exclusively account for attraction to certain kinds of music. Can absorption or rumination impact the enjoyment of music? And if so, do they influence the experience separately of interactively?

New Research on listening to sad music

We know that there are adaptive and maladaptive experiences to music via absorption and rumination respectively. Absorption allows for dissociation to be able to freely experience with increased intensity and therefore pleasure in something such as sad music and ensuing negative emotions.

Rumination, on the other hand, is maladaptive as individuals use it (consciously or unconsciously) to dwell on negative emotions and experiences derived from listening to sad music. Rumination is often used as a stimulus to maintain a negative mood.

Absorption and rumination are both known to exclusively account for attraction to music. What we don't fully understand is if they also work interdependently in the attraction to music and what is the causal sequence. Is it absorption followed by rumination or the other way round? More importantly, are there other predictors?

Auditory imagery

Imagery is the ability to create visual memories or the ability to conjure up images. It is based on suspended disbelief and use of imagination or fantasy-like activities to elicit mental imagery, which are tightly linked to the idea of absorption described earlier. Auditory imagery is a musical imagination or cognitive representations of heard music.

Imagery was included in this new research study (Schubert et al, 2018) as it has the aforementioned links between imagery and absorption. The research questions are:

  • Is auditory imagery a contributor to musical responses?
  • Does auditory imagery mediate other variables such as absorption and rumination?
  • Conversely, does absorption and rumination mediate auditory imagery?

Four hypotheses

Four hypotheses were developed to test the causal chain.

H1 Trait absorption mediates imagery.
H2 Imagery mediates trait absorption.
H3 Contribution of rumination to enjoyment of music.
H4 Contribution of absorption to enjoyment of music.


To investigate cognitive measures of absorption, auditory imagery, and rumination to examine how each explains attraction to negative emotion in music and if contributions are independent or mediated.

Each of the four areas to measure—absorption, rumination, liking of sad music, and auditory imagery—were measured with reliable scale instruments with reliability of =.82 for all scales.

Correlational analyses

Correlational analysis found that only rumination correlated with the target variable of liking of sad music. This means that rumination is a potential predictor of the liking of sad music but not as a mediator. This means that hypothesis 4 is supported and rumination contributes independently to liking of sad music.

Mediation analyses

Further mediation analysis were conducted to identify the role of one or two variables acting to mediate the target variable of liking of sad music. The two mediation analyses conducted were:

  • Absorption/rumination on influence of imagery.
  • Imagery mediating the role of absorption/rumination.


Absorption found as a significant mediator of imagery in liking of sad music in support of H1. Rumination not found to mediate the linking of sad music via imagery.

More specifically, absorption is considered a mediator of vividness of imagination in determining liking for negative emotion in music. In other words, absorptions triggers auditory imagery to such an extent that it allows a suspension of disbelief in order to allow an individual to freely experience increased intensity and pleasure in something sad.

Auditory imagery is an indirect contributor to liking of sad music and is mediated by absorption (H1 supported).

Absorption and rumination make independent contributions to liking of sad music (H4 supported).


Aspects of imagination are mediated by absorption (H1) which allows of music listener to engage more with music that evokes a negative emotion, allowing one to be in a state of absorption. Absorption is the prime psychological mover for enjoyment of negative emotions in music. It is an adaptive form of musical engagement for listening to sad music of music which evokes negative emotions.


Negative emotion in music can be enjoyed when the listener is in a dissociative state (Schubert, 2013). A dissociative state (absorption) is considered adaptive as it allows the listener to enjoy a wide range of experiences such as negative emotions without the 'pain' associated with negative emotions such as those brought about via rumination. Moreover, the ability to dissociate pain centre activation in aesthetic contexts also facilitates imaginative propensity. The limits of this ability to free oneself cognitively maybe limited by one's imagination.

The chain of processing is conceptualised as music listening leading dissociation, with an intervening auditory imaging state, followed by enjoyment of negative emotion.

Although auditory imagery played a role in this research, the contribution is indirect. It is dissociation via absorption which is the critical factor in the enjoyment of negative emotion when listening to music. Dissociation is required to enjoy sad music effectively, with some (optional) imagery processing to further enhance the experience.

© iteachpiano 2021

Schubert, E., Halpern, A. R., Kreutz, G., & Garrido, S. (2018, Vol. 12 Issue 3 - 2018). Attraction to sad music: The role of imagery, absorption, and rumination. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 12(3), 251–258.


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