Why do we listen to sad songs?


I particularly liked this bit:

The subjects were asked to indicate, on a seven-point scale, whether their song “embodies what music is all about.” The goal was to clarify how important emotional expression in general — of joy, sadness, hatred or whatever — was to music on an intuitive level. On the whole, subjects reported that deeply emotional but technically flawed songs best reflected the essence of music; emotional expression was a more salient value than technical proficiency.

I’ve been scratching my head for a while while reading a lot of discussions on this forum, wondering why they often start strong and then degenerate into “you have no basis for thinking that-- you sir are illogical.” Being flawed is so much a part of being human, and I think it’s quite proper that we are drawn to the less than perfect. But online, divorced from most social cues, people tend to try to reduce things into debates about logic. This sort of thing represents (for some) an easy way to resolve disagreement.

I think that at the core these difficulties are ontological, not logical. People simply don’t agree about what exists. What I mean by that, for a casual example, is the difference between physical formats and musical experience. I listen to virtually anything that makes a sound, from 78s to high resolution digital and see value in all of them and do not see them as interchangeable. Santo and Johnny’s song “Sleepwalk”, for example, is a different experience on a scratchy 45 than in pristine high res digital. For me, the 45 is better and more affecting.

To suddenly logically argue that the digital version can record the scratches and that there’s no reason at all to hang on to the physical artifact its worse than meaningless-- it kills discussion, and increases the hostility level discouraging further interaction. I wish people could think before they post more often.

This difficulty is ontological in that I clearly believe that there is a quality to music that can’t be measured, especially by standards of perfection-- a connection with times and feelings that are inseparable from the physical media that carry them. Others don’t see any real point in discussing things which can’t be expressed in numbers or encoded in language-- hence, the resort to logic shouting down the faintest whiff of sentiment.

I am a sentimental fool. I listen to lots of sad songs because they seem more human to me than hitting shuffle on a group of high resolution, technically perfect masters. But this doesn’t mean that an atmospheric, high resolution digital can’t take me away into thoughts of the humanity that created it as well-- all formats matter.


The collection of (digitized, sorry!) 78’s at archive.org is astounding.

I know, right? I’ve downloaded quite a few over the years that I keep in my digital library. I bought a 78 stylus a while back to play some of my dad’s old Freddie Slack 78s, but I haven’t got around to it yet. Part of the problem is technical-- I bought a Puffin around the same time, because 78 eq curves are all over the map-- it uses digital filtering to replicate about 100 of them. But, there will be so much fiddling and fussing involved when I get around to it that I’m waiting until I feel like I’ve got the time to devote to it. Not to mention completely changing the setup of my turntable.

I’ll probably wait until I buy a new turntable to set up to play them on my old one, so I don’t have to mess around with dialing it in over and over after switching between formats. When my father retired, I transferred a bunch of them to cassette tapes on crappy equipment (both turntable and cassette) and I haven’t even thought about digitizing those-- now that he’s passed, I have the originals.

There are stories about that I may dig into another day.

I tried the Puffin as a phono preamp for an afternoon (comparing it with an inexpensive Parasound phono stage). I was hoping for a big improvement because of the digital signal processing. There wasn’t any. It sounded positively awful compared to the basic preamp I had been using before, even though it cost twice as much. That’s okay, really, because I mainly bought it with 78s in mind. I’m not a digital snob. I’ve got terrabytes of the stuff, and I enjoy it too.

Our love of the music is not a direct appreciation of sadness, it’s an appreciation of connection. Dr. Knobe and Dr. Venkatesan were quickly on board.

“I’m a believer already,” Dr. Eerola said when he was alerted to the study. In his own research, he has found that particularly empathetic people are more likely to be moved by unfamiliar sad music. “They’re willing to engage in this kind of fictional sadness that the music is bringing them,” he said.

This also relates directly to something I’ve been thinking about lately, The invocation of “fictional sadness” derived from music reminds me of a concept that I think would be really useful to think about regarding what we expect from musical reproductions.

John Willats foundational work with children’s drawings, Art and Representation, proposes a radical idea regarding artistic representations: Pictures are props in games of make believe. I have been thinking a lot about the role that recorded music serves as representations of musical experience and I think they function in much the same way. We use our systems to better imagine the musical experience, which is is social in nature even when our listening activities are frequently solitary.

It’s a way of feeling a connection that is not dependent on the technical quality of the system that conveys it. I’ve known a lot of musicians over the years that generally have had pretty crappy stereo systems, but they haven’t really cared-- the system only needs to be good enough to convey the qualities they are looking for that resonate with them. In short, the reproduction is a prop that allows them to imagine the musical feeling they are looking for.

Perhaps that’s why logical and technical fistfights over formats and measurements are so boring-- it just takes away from the search for connections and feelings.

Yep, that’s probably why Amazon Echo and Spotify are so wildly popular.

I’m confused. You posted the article that I was responding to, and your only retorts are non sequitur?

Retorts? Just comments. Non sequiturs? You said, not dependent on the technical quality of the system, which reminded me of some friends who are completely satisfied playing music over an Amazon Echo. It’s not the quality, it’s the song.

Apologies. I just didn’t understand what you were getting at with your post and without the explanation you provided I’d still be scratching my head.

Not everything I say is snark :rofl: