Folks like their songs sad but in good taste

June 09, 1999

Altoona, Pa. -- Most people enjoy sad music as long as they consider it artistically pleasing, according to two Penn State researchers.

"Our data show that folks will listen to music even if it makes them noticeably depressed," says Dr. Valerie Stratton, associate professor of psychology at Penn State Altoona. "They're willing to make this tradeoff, as long as they feel the music has aesthetic value."

"Furthermore, people don't seem to mind emotional side effects as long as they have control over the music," adds Annette H. Zalanowski, associate professor of music at Penn State Altoona. "They can deal with a sad song if they have the option of turning it off."

The researchers conducted a study, using as stimuli recordings of a sad and happy song, along with a sad and happy essay. The songs were Elton John's "Candle in the Wind" version re-written for Princess Diana's death and "Weird Al" Yankovic's "Eat It," a parody of the Michael Jackson bestselling song, "Beat It." The two prose samples were a newspaper report about Princess Diana's death and a humorous skit by comedian Steve Martin on trying to join Mensa.

"We asked the 53 student participants to listen to the songs and essays, sad and happy, and rate enjoyment and aesthetics of each on a scale of 1 to 7," Zalanowski says. "On average, more students enjoyed listening to the sad song more than the happy song, while at the same time giving the sad song significantly higher aesthetic ratings than either the happy song or the essays."

Furthermore, compared to the happy song and essay, the sad song and essay significantly increased depression on an individual level. Nevertheless, the quality of being aesthetic or artistic counterbalanced this negative emotion for those listening to the sad song, say the Penn State researchers.

"Sad music can apparently serve as solace and provides a sense of not being alone in one's misery," Stratton notes.

Stratton and Zalanowski are co-authors of the paper, "The Role of Aesthetics in Enjoying Sad Music," recently presented at the Eastern Psychological Association convention in Providence, R.I.
-end-
EDITORS: Dr. Stratton is at 814-949-5289 and at vns@psu.edu by e-mail; Dr. Zalanowski is 814-949-5296 and at ahz1@psu.edu by e-mail.

Penn State

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