Science Explains Why We Love Sad Music

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A fascinating article in the San Francisco Classical Voice investigates why sad music appeals to some people but not others. David Huron, a professor at Ohio State’s School of Music and Center for Cognitive Science who is writing a book called The Science of Sad Music, has discovered that those of us who enjoy melancholy tunes may be getting high on prolactin — “a hormone that is usually associated with pregnancy and lactation but that the body also releases when we’re sad or weeping.” Folks who don’t like sorrowful songs don’t get the same prolactin bump.

According to Huron, here’s how it works: “When you have a grief experience — like your dog dies — you get a prolactin release that prevents the grief from getting out of hand. Imagine if you could fool the brain into thinking your dog died, but at the end of the day, it didn’t. These subcortical structures start going into grief mode, and you get this prolactin, which is the brake on the grief. But the cognitive part of the brain says, ‘Who are you kidding? Your dog didn’t die; this is just music.’ So the cortical, conscious part of the brain is sending signals to the subcortical structure, saying, ‘Turn it off, there’s no reason to be sad.’ Now you have the prolactin release without the psychic pain. So at the end of the day, you’re actually feeling quite good.” We don’t know about you, but the next time we need a boost, we might just forgo a stiff drink in favor of a Smiths record. [via Arts Journal]