Tag Archives: instrumental music

It’s Not Just a Phase, Mom- How Sad Music is More Enjoyable than Happy Music

In light of the recent music festival and the fact that music can be heard regularly throughout the Métro and streets of Paris, I decided to look into the effects of music on the brain. In my experience I’ve always found that, in a public setting such as the Métro, I prefer to hear people playing calming instrumental music, like an acoustic guitar, rather than an entire band playing an upbeat song. While this may just be based on personal opinion, I wanted to know if there was a neurobiological process that governed this reaction. Obviously, examining every sentiment or bias towards music is beyond the scope of one or two studies, so I refined my question: what brain processes drive us to form opinions of music that is perceptually happy or sad?

Figure 1: Map of all the Fête de la Musique major events in Paris- there’s music for all tastes!

My first inquiry led me to an article by Brattico et al. (2011) that aimed to show the difference in activity of certain brain regions from music that is happy or sad, and with or without lyrics. They hypothesized that songs with lyrics will activate the left fronto-temporal language network, while songs without lyrics would activate right-hemispheric brain structures. Also, they expected to observe activation of left-hemispheric auditory areas by happy music (which is richer in fast transitions) and of right-hemispheric areas by sad music (with slower “attacks” and tempos). They used fifteen subjects who were told to bring in 16 familiar music pieces: four sad and four happy pieces from favorite music, and four sad and four happy pieces from disliked or even hated music. The music, within the four categories, was then computer-analyzed to average the attack slope (sharpness of musical events, for example, most percussion would result in a high attack slope) and spectral centroid (brightness and frequency balance of the music, similar to timbre), as well as tempo and mode (major or minor chord quality) (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Differences of attacks slope, spectral centroid, tempo, and mode in the four music categories.

The subjects listened to 18 second excerpts of the music they brought while their brain activity was monitored. After the excerpts, they were asked if they liked or disliked the music, as well as if they thought the music was happy or sad. Their findings of the difference in activated areas between categories are shown in Figure 3. Although the researchers described in detail what each activated brain region meant in correlation with its usual information processing, I’ll only mention a few interesting points that relate to my original question:

  • Sad music induced activity in the right caudate head and the left thalamus. Interestingly, the left thalamus is one of only a few brain structures that is involved in processing sadness in faces, suggesting a link between emotions evoked by visual or auditory stimuli.
  • Also, sad music led to activity in both the subcortical stratial region, which is involved in judging musical and physical beauty.
  • Happy music without lyrics more strongly activated structures associated with perception and recognition of basic emotions, like the left anterior cingulate cortex and the right insula, than happy music with lyrics.
  • However, sad music led to wider brain activity during music with lyrics than without, such as emotion-related areas like the right claustrum and left medial frontal gyrus.

Figure 3: Differences in activation of brain regions due to music emotion and presence of lyrics. For example, “Lyrics > Instrumental” signifies the regions that were activated in lyrical music, but not in intrumental. ITG stands for inferior temporal gyrus, ACC stands for anterior cingulate cortex, Cau for caudate, Cun for cuneus, CG for cingulate gyrus, Dec for cerebellar declive, ITG stands for inferior temporal gyrus, Put for putamen, STG for superior temporal gyrus, TTG for transverse temporal gyrus, and Thal for thalamus.

Based off these results, the researchers concluded that instrumental music is efficient in conveying positive emotions, while sad emotions are reinforced when lyrics are present. They suggest that vocal cues in sad music activate deep emotion-related structures which produce mental associations with negative emotional experiences, as shown in activation of limbic and paralimbic regions. This activation causes people to have “moving” experiences.

Below are two pieces of music I think Brattico et al. would suggest have high emotional impact- a familiar sad song with vocals and a familiar instrumental happy song. How do they make you feel? (Songs are Hallelujah by Jeff Buckley and Canon in D by Pachelbel, I own no rights to these)

Overall, I thought the study provides a thorough analysis of the brain regions that are differentially activated during happy or sad music, and even considers the effect of lyrics. The only aspect of the experimental procedure that confused me was their decision to have the subjects bring in their own music. Although the researchers say that the subjects had similar familiarity with the music, there was probably some differing in familiarity throughout the categories. I, for one, would probably have a more difficult time finding four sad songs that I hate but know well, than I would in finding four happy songs that I like.

Something that I still didn’t understand fully was their mention of the underlying feelings of being “moved” from music. So, I looked at another article, this time by Vuoskoski and Eerola (2017), that examined the effect of perceptions of music, such as beauty, on this sentiment. They hypothesized that sadness in music has a positive association with beauty, and mediates the feeling of being moved, which in turn causes a sense of enjoyment or pleasure.

The experimental procedure consisted of having 19 music students listen to 27 short film excerpts. The participants then rated the perceived emotion of the music based on six scales: sad/melancholic, moving/touching, tender/warm, peaceful/relaxing, scary/distressing, and happy/joyful, as well as if they liked it or not. The correlation between the qualities is shown in Figure 4. As the table shows, beauty was shown to have a positive correlation with sadness and a high correlation with liking. Also, the perception of being moved was the most highly correlated with beauty and sadness. Overall, Vuoskoski and Eerola found that the indirect effect via movingness on liking was twice the magnitude of that via beauty, which suggests that perceived movingness acts as the largest link between sadness and liking. In other words, the sadder a song is, the more you will be “moved”, and the more you will enjoy it. It is important to point out that this is not saying that happy songs are unlikeable- there was still a positive correlation between happiness and liking, but it was slightly lower than that of sadness.

Figure 4: Correlation values between different emotional qualities of music and liking.

This study gives convincing, albeit initially difficult to understand, connections between sadness and enjoyment of music through the sentiment of “being moved”. The only downside of the study is that the participants were asked about how they thought the music sounded, not how it made them feel. Although it might only be a slight difference in wording, it could play a larger role in terms in relating the feelings to regional activation in the brain, like in the study by Brattico et al. However, by accepting that perception and feeling are inherently linked, we can conclude that the largest enjoyment can be obtained from sad music with vocals, as it strongly activates the regions of the brain that cause the listeners to be emotionally moved. I think an interesting future direction would be to see the effect of human interaction on enjoyment from sad music- I would assume that there would be less enjoyment out of listening to sad music in a group setting, as cultural norms would start to play a larger role.

Even though the findings indicate that sadness gives a higher level of enjoyment, I find it hard to believe that this would not differ between people. What do you think? Do you find that you have a more emotional or pleasurable experience when listening to sad music than happy music?


Brattico E, Alluri V, Bogert B, Jacobsen T, Vartiainen N, Nieminen S, Mari Tervaniemi M (2011) A Functional MRI Study of Happy and Sad Emotions in Music with and without Lyrics. Frontiers in Psychology. 2:308.

Vuoskoski JK, Eerola T (2017) The Pleasure Evoked by Sad Music Is Mediated by Feelings of Being Moved. Frontiers in Psychology. 8:439.

Figure 1 was found through Creative Commons

Figure 2 and 3 were taken from the article by Brattico et al.

Figure 4 was taken from the article by Vuoskoski  and Eerola

Videos were taken from YouTube