The Happy-Sad Balance in Music...and Life
Why our brains must sense both pleasure and pain
The human brain naturally spends a lot of time and energy sensing pleasure and pain to seek more of the former and less the latter. This built-in awareness of both emotions affects behavior as part of a natural motivational drive for better health and survival.
These emotions also spawn a spectrum of feelings, including happiness and sadness. Music, like all art, can evoke a certain balance of both happy and sad feelings.
Our brains are programmed to sort the positives and negatives. How can we appreciate happiness without sadness, or pleasure without pain? Seen as a single emotion, the musical listening experience of hearing a so-called sad song can be called nostalgic, sentimental, or bittersweet—a blend of both happy and sad, a realistic, holistic, expression of life.
We all know how joyful a happy song can be. But hearing a sad song can be uplifting, pleasurable, even happy as well. This paradox can be resolved by considering two different definitions of sadness:
- From a musical standpoint, the natural feelings we have when hearing a sad song may best be described as melancholy yet enjoyable. It can even make us happy (just like a happy song can have sadness). Like happy songs, bittersweet music can also be a powerful therapy.
- Social sadness, a common low mood that is a component of depression and grief, can be called excessive or out-of-control sadness, and is more commonly a learned emotion than a natural one. Negative thinking and depression can be mentally and physically tiring and unhealthy.
Since humans sang songs long before social negative moods or sadness was understood or became common, some of the music our ancestors made would have portrayed their melancholy (as all animals do). These emotions are also naturally expressed in modern but isolated cultures without influence from modern society.
Bittersweet songs can evoke healthy longing, which is not unlike seeking, a primary emotion. Longing is a passion that can move us toward happiness and fulfillment. It’s a yearning desire, like a burning wish or craving that can take us to wonderful places we’ve never been or return us to others (youth, love). Longing can lead to discovery, awe, and spirituality. It can help expand our consciousness, break on through to some other dimension. Longing is what we feel when listening to Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata or Eric Clapton’s Tears in Heaven.
Deep in the brain are two specific types of neurons that seek positive and negative aspects of our surroundings, including what we hear, see, and sense. This information is sent to higher levels of awareness where it affects mental/cognitive states. It’s all part of a natural drive for motivation and survival. The feelings of our response, in part, come from this neurological activity, falling on some spectrum of pleasure and pain, happy and sad.
Music strongly encourages improved brain function and is therefore therapeutic. Specifically, songs considered happy versus sad can do this differently:
- Happy songs tend to let the brain focus more on the music, reducing mind-wandering to remain in the moment yet promote the desire to move the body, especially to dance.
- Sad songs tend to have stronger, meaningful lyrics that make us think more about the self and life’s emotions with a wandering mind triggering creativity, learning, social cognition, and decision-making.
While I sometimes generally refer to happy songs as body music, and sad ones as brain music, we ideally want a balance of both.
- Both kinds of music can increase alpha and theta brain waves to reduce stress and improve overall brain-body function and health.
- All enjoyable music can trigger the brain’s pleasure/reward centers to release dopamine—a neurotransmitter that makes us feel good and happy.
How we interpret or whether we focus on music’s happy or sad aspects, or understand the balance of both, has to do with our individuality. This is strongly influenced by the memories a song may elicit. Case in point: After one of my performances, someone claimed to like my songs but also stated that they were all so sad. Two days later, I played the same set of songs in a different location, and another person who also enjoyed them stated they were so happy that I needed some sad ones for balance.
It should be noted that songwriters who are feeling down can often write uplifting happy songs. And it’s not unusual for a sad song to flow out during a very happy time. Likewise, sadness is not a requirement for great creativity, despite society’s, especially Hollywood’s, portrayal of depression or other low moods of artists.
There are various musical components that affect our feelings of happy-sad, and sometimes we focus on one but not others. Just the tempo can influence how we might feel: a fast sad song sometimes can make it seem happier, and slow happy songs may seem sad. Likewise for chord changes. Lyrics obviously can promote the notion of happy or sad, although sometimes the happy music overrides these lyrics. Think of the Beatles’ Maxwell’s Silver Hammer—very happy music, but very sad lyrics.
The musical key can also play a significant role in our feelings. When all musical components are held constant, songs in a major key are usually judged happy while a minor key is heard as sad. The expected nature of a major key can evoke a bright cheerful sound, while the minor key can produce unexpected mental tension triggering melancholy.
To demonstrate this, play Happy Birthday in the normal major key, then transpose it to minor: despite the melody and lyrics remaining the same, it now sounds sad.
Of course, a major key contains minor chords (and minor keys major chords); a major scale also has a relative minor. Musically, a shot of sad feeling in parts of a song is common—it’s how film composers score a sad scene, and classical music without lyrics elicits sadness.
Most songwriters don’t really think of all these musical components when composing but rather just let the music flow out of their brains—just like we don’t usually focus on grammar rules and exceptions when writing or reading.
For music enjoyment and its many benefits, you can avoid the happy-sad labels—it’s up to you the listener. Music is like food for the brain: A wide variety of healthy food allows for a full complement of nutrients. Likewise, it may be best listening to a wide variety of music that includes two general categories:
- Music we are familiar with and enjoy.
- Music that is new to our brains.
We all respond to music in unique ways regardless of whether a song is happy or sad, or whether we think we know the mood—even if the songwriter is unsure.
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