Garrido, Sandra

PhD University of NSW 2012 Pages: 310

Negative Emotions in Music: What is the attraction?

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[Abstract reproduced with permission of author]
This thesis sought to investigate why people are attracted to music that makes them sad. In particular it was hypothesised that individual differences in several personality measures would be related to attraction to music evoking negative emotions. The research was conducted by means of three online surveys, and five case studies. After a review of the literature, an initial study involving a survey of fifty-nine participants revealed statistically significant positive relationships between an enjoyment of evoked negative emotion in response to music and both Absorption (a capacity to become deeply immersed in a task or activity) and ‘Music Empathy’ (the ability to decode and respond to emotions in music).

Five case studies were subsequently conducted. Results supported the argument that absorption and dissociation make it possible for the emotional stimulation of sad music to be enjoyed without the displeasure usually associated with sadness. A variety of psychological benefits also appeared to be gained although it appeared that maladaptive mood regulation habits cause some to listen to sad music even when such benefits are not obtained.

An additional online survey was then conducted which included an investigation of the personality traits of Reflectiveness (an adaptive trait involving an enjoyment of self-reflection and deep thinking) and Nostalgia-Proneness (a tendency to spend time thinking about the past). Results confirmed the significance of Absorption in the enjoyment of emotional response to sad music particularly in the case of male participants. In addition, Reflectiveness appears to be implicated in the use of sad music for dealing with negative emotions associated with life-events particularly in the case of females.

Rumination (a maladaptive trait involving the obsessive thinking about negative events or emotions) was also correlated with the use of sad music although not necessarily the enjoyment of it. The final study focused on maladaptive uses of music and the impact of prior mood. Results revealed that ruminators did not experience an improved mood from listening to sad music and in fact reported that listening to the music made them feel more sad. Ruminators also appeared to derive greater benefit from listening to happy music than other listeners, indicating that their attraction to sad music is part of their generally maladaptive mood regulation strategies.

Listeners with high scores in Reflectiveness who were experiencing a depressed mood prior to listening to sad music reported deriving some benefits from the listening experience, although the effect on mood was not immediately apparent.

The interdisciplinary approach of this thesis, drawing on literature in both philosophy/aesthetics, history and psychology, has enhanced understanding of why people listen to sad music by examining individual differences and conducting empirical investigation into the topic. Absorption, reflectiveness and rumination have been identified as key predictors of an attraction to sad music with important differences in uses of sad music between the genders. In addition to making a significant contribution to the philosophical debate which has been occurring for centuries on this topic, the research has implications for our understanding of the function of music in everyday life. It will also have application to music therapy in that it identifies both adaptive and maladaptive music listening habits.

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