American author Susan Cain is a big fan of grief.
More specifically, he is deeply interested in sad music and the “mysterious and seemingly paradoxical” joy or pleasure it can evoke.
Mrs. Cain tried to understand why sad music – such as Leonard Cohen’s music – touched her more than any other species.
Understand it he was complicated by a certain stigma surrounding grief. We tend to avoid sad emotions, as if they should be ashamed, says Mrs Cain.
“We all know that life contains these two poles of joy and sorrow and everything in between … and yet we should not talk about one half of our emotional experience,” she told ABC RN Life Matters.
But in a world full of “toxic positivity”, he says that exploring feelings of “sadness, heart pain or desire” is not just right – it is essential for a full and meaningful life.
The “secret” of sad music
When Mrs. Cain listens to melancholy music, she’s not sad about it.
Rather, the music gives her a “sense of connection” with others. He inspires feelings of “love and gratitude” for the musician or the music “for being able to turn what has obviously begun into grief into something that is beautiful and even transcendent.”
According to her, the human ability to “turn pain into beauty” is the “secret of sad music”.
She has been thinking about it for decades – and she is not alone.
Much research has been devoted to understanding the connection between music and sadness.
Ms Cain points to research by MIT economist Karol J Borowiecki, who studied letters from Beethoven, Mozart and Liszt to find out how happy or sad they are. He then correlated these letters with the musical works they were producing at the time.
“[Professor Borowiecki] they found that deeper musical compositions, those considered by music historians to be their greatest, tended to arise in times of mourning, ”says Cain.
He wrote that the research offered insight into how “negative emotions can provide fertile material to which a creative person applies. [can] draw”.
“Sadness becomes consolation”
Australian singer and songwriter Kate KS says that some of her songs are so sad that she cried while they were writing.
She has decided to put many difficult or sad moments in her life into the music and says she considers the process “extremely cathartic”.
It can also be for those who listen.
“It’s a common thing that people say after the concert that I brought them to tears at some point,” says KS.
He believes it’s because the audience “feels” seeing those sad songs.
“People realize, oh, it’s not just me who feels that way. Someone else feels that way.”
“It’s sharing experiences.”
Researchers and thinkers from Aristotle have also addressed the question of why people might like to listen to pathetic music.
Like Mrs. Cain, Emery Schubert, a professor of music at the University of New South Wales, has been thinking about this for decades.
For years, too, he considered people’s enjoyment of sad music a strange paradox.
Recently, however, he has begun to change his mind.
“It’s a more complicated story,” he says now, suggesting that the apparent conflict of enjoying sad music may actually be exaggerated.
“I don’t think people work that way,” he says.
Rather, Professor Schubert argues that “different classes of experience can occur in parallel.”
We can experience multiple feelings and emotions at the same time, he says. “It’s not a big deal because we’re complicated people.”
Why music evokes anything in us
So maybe the question should be, why does music feel anything in us at all?
Professor Schubert points to the work of Patrik Juslin, Professor of Music Psychology, considered by many to be the world’s number one music researcher.
According to Professor Juslin, there are seven ways in which music makes us feel, explains Professor Schubert.
One is the contagious effect of music, in which you “catch” whatever it expresses, simply by listening, “as if you have a cold,” he says.
Another is the ability of music to evoke a certain memory and emotions associated with that memory.
Conditioning is another way music can work in us. “In Western culture, we learn that something in a minor key, a minor mode, generally sounds sadder than something in a major key,” explains Professor Schubert.
Can’t all art make us feel something?
Not according to the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer from the early 18th century.
Professor Schubert says that Schopenhauer and other great philosophers have argued that all art forms other than music “represent something about the human world” and “remind us of these real situations.”
On the other hand, they believed that music “is the only art form that it does not have to represent. It can simply exist in this sound form,” says Professor Schubert.
Ms. KS says that another thing that can distinguish music from, say, visual art is that it is often created in a group.
Seeing or hearing “exceptional musicians, true masters of their instrument” playing together creates “moments of synergy … with lots of emotion,” he says.
“It’s extremely strong.”
Joy is easy; the pain is redemptive
Mrs. Cain clearly distinguishes grief or melancholy from depression or clinical depression.
The difference he draws is the feeling of “happy melancholy” or “bittersweet” state.
The title of her latest book on the subject is Bittersweet: How Sadness and Desire Make Us Whole.
Ms. Cain believes that there is pleasure that can be gained from “the knowledge that light and darkness, joy and sadness [and] bitter and sweet are always and forever united ”.
“Everything and everyone we love the most is innate instability.”
And with this in mind, “a truly profound and penetrating joy in the beauty of the world,” he says.
“Turning pain into beauty” is “redemptive,” says Mrs. Cain – and it’s “at the heart of everything,” including music.
“The joy of ourselves that take care of ourselves. The part is easy,” he says.
“That part of the pain is tricky.”
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