“Why do we like sad music so much?”
That’s David Rosen, a composer, friend, and fellow podcaster.
“Nothing puts me in a better mood than sad music. My all-time favorite band, The Cure, is famous for being one of the founders of the Goth scene and have some of the most depressing music ever, but their album Disintegration works like magic. If I’m not having a great day, I put it on and I listen to the whole thing and I’m just… feeling better. It’s so hard to explain.
“And the influences of sad music doesn’t stop at just lyrics. Film scores and classical music… can be some of the most beautifully affecting music out there.
“You’d think we just want to hear happy poppy stuff, but for people like me (and I should add that I’m generally a really happy guy), it doesn’t get better than sad music.” Thanks, David.
Now obviously a song can be sad because of the lyrics, but today, let’s talk about how music can make a song sound sad even when there are no lyrics, and why we like that.
Welcome to Song Appeal, where we dive into your favorite songs to answer the question “Why do we like the music we like?” I’m your host, Hunter Farris, and on today’s episode, let’s take a look at why we like “Life & Death”, one of the main themes from Michael Giacchino’s score for the TV show Lost.
You can find the full transcript from this episode, links to everything I reference in this episode, and a link to hear the theme at SongAppealOfficial.com/Lost.
You can also help support this show on Patreon at Patreon.com/SongAppeal, where you’ll find some great perks, including Patreon-exclusive minisodes and the full version of an interview with Brea Murakami, the host of the Instru(mental) podcast (you’ll hear more from her later on in this episode).
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This episode will be spoiler-free.
I’d like you to join me for just a moment at the back of a chapel. Up front, Paul Cardall, a musician who inspired a lot of my style, is playing a grand piano. Now, most of the performance, I’ve been whispering back and forth with the person next to me, but halfway through the show, he starts playing his cover of “Life & Death” from Lost. And immediately, I close my mouth, close my eyes, and open my heart as I let myself swim in the sorrow and serenity of this song.
You see “Life & Death” has a lot of meaning to me. I watched enough of Lost to fall in love with the characters and then to watch some of them die slow, meaningful deaths. And the score for Lost was played a lot in my home growing up, especially to accentuate emotional moments.
To me, this is a heartbreaking song. And when I hear a heartbreaking song, I have to ask: Why this theme is so sad? And why do we like sad music?
There are a lot of different reasons why “Life & Death” is sad. Let’s talk about just three of them.
First, this song is a leitmotif. You might remember from the Jaws episode that a leitmotif is a short piece of music that represents something. Anything. A person, a shark, a place. What we haven’t talked about is how our brains learn “this leitmotif represents that specific thing”. That’s where “Life & Death” comes in. Our brains associate a leitmotif with a specific thing when the music plays at the same time as we see that specific thing. But it can’t just be one random time. It works best when we hear the leitmotif has to happen every time we see the thing. And “Life & Death” is a perfect example of this, because every single time someone dies on Lost, they play this piece.
And remember how Pavlov’s dogs started to associate the sound of a bell with food? Or how Jim got Dwight to associate that computer sound with mints? When we hear this theme every time we watch people die on a show where we learned to love the characters, we start to mentally associate this theme with the feeling of watching someone you love die.
But it’s not just about what we saw onscreen. The song itself combines a sad-sounding chord with a sad-sounding melody. That way, it can musically make you feel melancholy, even if you’re just hearing the song and you haven’t seen the show.
One way it sounds sad is by switching back and forth between the I chord and the minor iii chord. Let’s focus on that minor iii chord for a moment, also called the “mediant chord”. It’s a really sad chord. Jake Lizzio would know. He makes it a habit to ask lots and lots of his students how different chords make them feel. How does he describe the mediant chord? “Just one application of the mediant chord can instantly add sorrow and wist to an otherwise cheerful major key”. That’s an exact quote from his video with a lot of examples of the minor iii chord (or the mediant chord), including “Life & Death”. I’ll include a link in the shownotes.
But the mediant chord isn’t the only sad part of this song. The melody itself sounds sad by focusing on notes that are a minor third apart. In 2010, Meagan Curtis and Jamshed Bharucha set up an experiment where they invited actors to say phrases with different emotions. Then they fed the recordings through a computer to find what intervals were the closest match to the actors’ speech patterns. For example: When I say “Eat yet?” [cheerily], I’m usually starting around an F and moving up a perfect fifth to a C. And when the actors would say things sadly, they would naturally end phrases by going down a minor third. Like this: “Okay” [sadly].
We’re so used to hearing people unconsciously end sad phrases with minor thirds that when we hear a lot of minor thirds in a row, we associate them with sadness. Like this bit from “Somewhere Out There” that’s nothing but minor thirds: “And even though I…”
Of course, not every song that uses a minor third sounds sad. An article in The Atlantic, pointed out that “We Are The Champions” uses 3 minor thirds in one line, but it doesn’t sound sad: “We are”, “champions” “of the”.
But this song doesn’t throw a few minor thirds into one line, like “We Are The Champions” does. Here’s the main melody: [music]. 70% of those intervals are minor thirds. This is a song that really takes advantage of the sadness that comes from minor thirds.
So we associate this theme with the feelings we get when we watch characters we love die, but we also associate this theme with sad songs because of that mediant chord, and we associate this theme with sad people talking because of that minor third. That’s how “Life & Death” makes us feel sad without saying a word about people dying, or saying a word about someone leaving you, or saying a word at all.
So there’s three reasons why this song is sad, so now it’s time to get back to David Rosen’s question: “Why do we like sad music so much?”
For this part, let’s get a little help. “My name is Brea Murakami”. Brea Murakami is a professional music therapist. Every day, she works with how music affects the brain. And when she’s not working with music and the brain, she’s talking about research about music and the brain on her podcast Instru(mental).
A few weeks ago, I got to interview her and ask why some people like sad music. “There have been a bunch of great research articles that look at this sphere, like, “What is rewarding about listening to music that may induce or may represent this unrewarding or undesired emotional state?”
In one of those research articles, three researchers at the University of Tokyo pointed out that “In general, sad music induces sadness in listeners, and sadness is regarded as an unpleasant emotion. If sad music actually evokes only unpleasant emotion, we would not listen to it.”
This isn’t just emotional masochism. According to another one of those research articles, we feel more than just sadness when we listen to sad music. A group of researchers at the University of California found that many people feel nostalgia, peace, and wonder when they listen to sad music, especially if those people ranked high on “Openness to experience” and “empathy”.
There are a lot of good feelings we might get when we might enjoy sad music, but for now, let’s focus on just one of them: When we listen to sad music, we can have a good, controlled cry.
[Brea Murakami quote:] “The research shows that people who listen to sad music a lot often use these for self-regulation purposes, so being able to express sad or negative feelings, but in a way where they have more control over it.” Thanks, Brea.
Every once in a while, we need a good cry. As one blogger put it, when it comes to listening to sad music, “It’s not always about trying to feel good. Sometimes it’s about wanting to know that it’s okay to feel bad.”
There’s a great scene in the movie Inside Out that illustrates this perfectly, when the living embodiment of Joy and the personification of Sadness both watch Bing Bong, one of their friends, lose something important to him, something that he was going to use to fulfill his life’s purpose. And he feels like the rest of his life is meaningless. No one needs him anymore. He’s done.
Joy tries to cheer Bing Bong up by saying things like “It’s going to be OK” and “We can fix this”. She tries to cheer him up by pretending to be the Tickle Monster, making funny faces, suggesting a game, but he just sits there. He barely says a word. He barely notices Joy. He’s just thinking about what he lost, and what that means to him.
Then Sadness comes over to Bing Bong and, true to form, is sad with him. They talk about how much that thing meant to him, what he was planning on doing with it, and the great experiences he had with that thing. Joy criticizes Sadness for making him feel worse, and he even starts crying. But after a moment, he wipes his tears, stands up, and says “I’m OK now. Let’s go.”
And this isn’t just a nice idea from a movie. It’s backed by science, too. Remember those researchers from the University of California? The ones who found that people feel nostalgia, peace, and wonder when they listen to sad music? One of them later wrote: “The reward [behind a good cry] could be purely biochemical. We[‘]ve all experienced the feeling of relief and serenity after a good cry. This is due to a cocktail of chemicals [caused] by crying.” he continued: “A recent theory proposes that even a fictional sadness is enough to fool our body to trigger such a… response, [a response that’s] intended to soften the mental pain involved in real loss. This response is driven by hormones… [that] actually induce the feelings of comfort, warmth and mild pleasure in us.” So when you experience fictional sadness, you don’t just feel bad, your brain starts recovering from sadness by feeling better, kind of like self-soothing. “This mix of hormones is probably particularly potent when you take the actual loss and sadness out of the equation – which you can often do in music-induced sadness.”
But what’s important here isn’t just that you get a good cry, but that you get a chance to control your sadness.
Those researchers from the University of Tokyo also suggested that we can enjoy melancholy music because we can deal with sad emotions without having any threat to our physical well-being. Nothing’s technically wrong, but you still feel sad. So your brain says “It’s OK to feel sad right now. You’re safe.”
And as Brea Murakami suggested: “Some researchers think that sad music plays a different role from just being sad in a non-musical setting because we know that that sad song is going to end. We know that it’s going to come to a resolution. And if we choose to, we can listen to that again.”
And that’s the important part: You can be sad in a way that you control. You can let go of happiness for a moment, knowing you’ll be safe, and that when you come back, you’ll be happier than before.
To me, “Life & Death” perfectly represents the sound of sadness. It focuses on a sad mediant chord and a sad minor 3rd in the melody and after we heard it over and over while we watched people die, we associated it with the sorrow of watching someone die.
But more importantly, it musically represents one reason why we like sad music. “Life & Death” isn’t just about making us sad. It’s about walking us through these deep emotions, until we come out on the other side to find peace as the song musically represents the feeling of having a controlled good cry and feeling better afterwards. It’s a musical answer to David Rosen’s question “Why do we like sad music so much?”
Thanks for listening. If you liked this episode, check out SongAppealOfficial.com for more episodes.
If you have a song you’d like to request, you can contact me over Twitter (@SongAppeal) or by visiting Facebook.com/SongAppealOfficial.
You can also help support this show on Patreon at Patreon.com/SongAppeal, where you’ll find some great perks, including the full interview with Brea Murakami.
You can also find more of Brea’s work on her podcast, Instru(mental) at InstrumentalPodcast.com.
Again, thanks so much for listening. I’ll talk with you soon. In the meantime, have a great day, and enjoy your music.