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Why We love Sad Music, And Other Musical Mysteries Explained (By Brain Science!)

Paul Burnett and Clint McMahon via Flickr Creative Commons

Wherever you live, whatever you’re into, human beings respond to music. Brain researchers have found that listening to music not only makes you feel good – it alters your brain physiologically. To find out more we, talked to Dr. Robert Zatorre,  Neuroscientist at the Montreal Neurological Institute at McGill University.

When you listen to music you love, your brain responds by rewarding you with a surge of dopamine--the body's built-in reward system. It's the same happy chemical produced when you exercise, eat foods that are rich in salt or fat, or have sex. The dopamine system is generally tied to behaviors that helped humans survive in the days when danger lurked around every corner. So why would music, which wouldn't help keep you alive if you were alone in the jungle, activate the brain's pleasure-center?  Dr. Robert Zatorre is quick to point out he's not an evolutionary biologist, but he does have a theory:

"Basically, the brain can be thought of as a problem-solving engine, or a prediction-engine. In other words, we derive pleasure from solving puzzles, from understanding relationships, from seeing patterns in our environment, and from predicting what's going to happen next. Music can be thought of as a microcosm of that; to the extent that there are all different kinds of patterns, rhythms, harmonies, melodies, and different kinds of relationships. If you are able to perceive those relationships, you can also make predictions about what's coming up."

So how does that explain music purposefully designed to make you cringe, like this composition by Penderecki, called Threnody For The Victims of Hiroshima?

Well, it doesn't. Not all music, or any art for that matter, fits into the prediction-engine model of why we like music. Dr. Zatorre points out that music that is highly dissonant will be, by definition, perceived by most people as aggressive, or unpleasant. Music that purposefully employs dissonance may have been composed to evoke emotions other than pleasure, as a way of making people reflect on an event, or idea.  Zatorre also has a theory on why we might get a sort of contradictory pleasure from listening to music that isn't inherently dissonant, but employs lyrics and music that evoke negative emotions:

"We're not always happy. Sometimes we're sad. Or Angry. To the extent that you can use music to elicit those moods, and allow you to reflect on your own internal response to those emotions, that can actually be extremely useful and even uplifting."

So that explains why I couldn't stop listening to Elliott Smith in high school. But can brain science explain why some people, especially record store employees and Berklee-trained shredders (and yes, we are definitely generalizing here) are more likely to be into genres like Prog-Rock, Math-Rock, Jazz, and other types of music that defy Top 40 notions of what makes popular music? Songs that you can't tap your foot to, unless you have an understanding of bizarre time signatures like 7/8 or 5/4?

"I think what's going on there, is that as you the listener become more sophisticated in a particular genre, whether it be [Math-Rock], Contemporary Classical music, or some type of Jazz, you become better at recognizing those patterns. And to the extent that the patterns are more complicated and maybe more hidden in the musical structure, discovering them is even more of a pleasure. If a pattern is really very simple, obvious, and superficial, then you'll listen to that music once or twice, and after that it'll be all over--you'll have discovered everything there is to be discovered and it's now boring. And that's what happens with a lot of music that's designed for mass consumption. Whereas music that stands the test of time tends to be, in large part, music that's more complicated where the barrier to entry is much higher."

This song, "Cramm", by Three Trapped Tigers, is definitely NOT in 4/4.

Music that stands the test of time tends to be, in large part, music that's more complicated where the barrier to entry is much higher.

One of the most fascinating things about how our brains respond to music is the fact that the younger you expose people to music, the quicker they're able to learn the patterns and grow to appreciate a variety of genres, styles, and arrangements. 

"Very young children, even babies, start to learn the patterns of sound in their environment, whether it be Gamelan, or Chinese music, or Afro-pop. They will learn that at the same time or even earlier than when they start to figure out the language that they're exposed to."

Credit Jeff Moore via Flickr Creative Commons

So for parents out there hoping to raise miniature music aficionados with broad tastes and open minds, keep that playlist on shuffle and don't limit their exposure to your personal top ten.

After we spent some time learning about why we love sad songs, we asked listeners on Facebook and Twitter to share their favorite musical downers. We got so many responses we couldn't list them all, but here's an abbreviated list:


Nothing Compares 2U - Sinead O'Connor

Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now - The Smiths

Season In The Sun - Terry Jacks

No Name #1 - Elliott Smith

Puff The Magic Dragon - Peter, Paul, And Mary

Hello In There - John Prine

Casimir Pulaski Day - Sufjan Stevens

Strange Fruit - Billie Holiday

He Stopped Loving Her Today - George Jones

The Band Played Waltzing Matilda - The Pogues

Taylor Quimby is Supervising Senior Producer of the environmental podcast Outside/In, Producer/Reporter/Host of Patient Zero, and Senior Producer of the serialized true crime podcast Bear Brook.

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