How sad music can make us happy

Posted on: March 10, 2011

“Why do some of us love listening to sad music, while others loathe it?” asks Jesse Hamlin in Tuesday’s (3/8) San Francisco Classical Voice. “David Huron has a theory. People who enjoy sorrowful music are experiencing the consoling effects of prolactin, a hormone that is usually associated with pregnancy and lactation but that the body also releases when we’re sad or weeping.” Huron is a professor at Ohio State’s School of Music and Center for Cognitive Science and is writing a book called The Science of Sad Music. 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.’ This is why, [Huron] conjectures, the people who like listening to sad music are getting that shot of prolactin, and the people who hate listening to it aren’t.”

Posted March 10, 2011