American writer Susan Cain is a big fan of grief.
More specifically, she is deeply interested in sad music and the “mysterious and seemingly contradictory” joy or pleasure it can evoke.
Ms Kane has been trying to understand why sad music – such as Leonard Cohen’s – moves her more than other genres.
understand it It gets trickier because of some of the stigma surrounding grief. Ms Kane argues that we tend to avoid sad emotions as if they were something to be ashamed of.
“We all know that life contains the extremes of joy and sadness, and everything in between…but we shouldn’t be talking about half of our emotional experience,” she told ABC RN life matters.
But in a world full of “toxic positivity,” she said it’s not just okay to explore what it’s like to feel “sad, heartache or longing” — it’s essential to living a full and meaningful life.
The “Mystery” of Sad Music
When Ms. Kane listens to melancholic music, she doesn’t feel bad.
Instead, the music gave her a “sense of connection” with others. It inspires feelings of “love and gratitude” for musicians or music “for being able to transform what apparently begins with sadness into something beautiful and beyond”.
Humans’ ability to “turn pain into beauty” is “the mystery of sad music,” she said.
She’s been thinking about it for decades — and she’s not alone.
A great deal of research has been devoted to understanding the link between music and grief.
Ms. Kane pointed out Research by MIT economist Karol J Borowiecki, he studied the letters of Beethoven, Mozart and Liszt to find out how happy or sad they were. He then linked the letters to pieces of music they made at the time.
“[Professor Borowiecki] Discover the deeper music, the music that music historians consider to be their greatest, often written in times of grief,” Ms Kane said.
He writes that the study provides insight into “how Negative emotions can provide fertile material creative people [can] painting”.
‘Sadness becomes a comfort’
Australian singer-songwriter Kate KS said some of her songs were so sad that she cried while writing them.
She chose to put many of life’s difficult or sad moments in music, and said she found the process “very cathartic”.
It also applies to those who listen.
“It’s not uncommon for people to say after a show that at some point I made them cry,” Ms KS said.
She thinks it’s because the audience “feels seen” in those sad songs.
“People realize, oh, it’s not just me feeling this way. Other people feel this way too.
“It’s about sharing experiences.”
Is there no paradox at all?
Researchers and thinkers as far back as Aristotle have pondered why people like to listen to sad music.
Like Ms Kane, UNSW music professor Emory Schubert has pondered the question for decades.
Over the years, he has also argued that people’s enjoyment of sad music is 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 that’s how humans work,” he said.
Instead, Professor Schubert sees “different classes of experience that can happen in parallel”.
We can experience multiple feelings and emotions at the same time, he said. “It’s no big deal because we are complex humans”.
Why music makes us feel
So perhaps the question should be, why does music make us feel anything?
Professor Schubert pointed to the work of Patrick Joslin, a professor of music psychology, considered by many to be the number one music researcher in the world.
Professor Schubert explained that according to Professor Jaslin, music allows us to have seven senses.
One is the infectious power of music, you just listen to it and you can “grasp” whatever it expresses, “like you have a cold,” he said.
Another is the ability of music to evoke a certain memory, and the emotion associated with that memory.
Conditioning is another way music can make us feel. “In Western culture, we learn that in a minor key, something in a minor key often sounds sadder than something in a major key,” explains Professor Schubert.
Can’t all art make us feel something?
Well, not according to the early 18th century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer.
Professor Schubert said that Schopenhauer and other great philosophers believed that all art forms except music “represent something of the human world” and “remind us of these real-life situations”.
On the other hand, they argue that music “is the only art form that doesn’t need expression. It can exist in this sound form”, says Professor Schubert.
Another thing that separates music from visual arts is that it is often created in a group, Ms KS said.
Seeing or hearing “great musicians, true masters of instruments” together creates “moments of synergy…full of emotion,” she said.
“It’s very powerful.”
Pleasure is easy; pain is redemption
Ms. Kane clearly distinguishes sadness or melancholy from depression or clinical depression.
The distinction she draws is a “happy blue” or “bittersweet” state.
In fact, the title of her latest book exploring the topic is Bittersweet: How Grief and Longing Make Us Whole.
Ms Kane believes that from “recognizing light and darkness, joy and sorrow, [and] Bitter and sweet are always paired.”
“Everything and everyone we love the most has an inherent impermanence.”
With the realization of this state, she said, “there is a really deep and profound joy in the beauty of the world.”
Ms Kane said “turning pain into beauty” was “redemption” and “at the heart of everything”, including music.
“The happy side of ourselves, it takes care of itself. That part is easy,” she said.
“The tricky part is the pain part.”
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