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Psychological research related to human crying suggests the existence of two different yet complementary states, melancholy and grief (Vingerhoets & Cornelius, 2012). These emotions have separate motivations and physiological characteristics. When characterizing nominally “sad” music, listeners appear to offer a wide range of descriptions. Could it be that this large variance in responses is a consequence of the failure to distinguish melancholy from grief?
The current study addresses this distinction by examining listeners’ perceptions of “sad” music in a series of five studies. Three judges listened to 62 passages of “sad” music and classified them as melancholy or grieving. The first experiment asked those with superior aural skills to rate structural parameters of these melancholic and grief passages (e.g., harsh timbres, narrow pitch intervals) on 7-point unipolar scales in order to examine the musical differences between these “sad” states; the results suggest that different musical parameters can be identified in melancholy and grief music (R2 = 81.8%). The other four studies asked listeners to rate perceived emotions (Study 2; n = 49) and experienced emotions (Study 4; n = 57) from melancholic and grieving passages. Results are consistent with the hypothesis that listeners can distinguish musical grief from musical melancholy (p < 0.05) and that these two stimuli types give rise to different emotions (p < 0.05). Notably, grief music is related to feelings of crying, death/loss, and transcendence, whereas melancholy music is related to feelings of reflection, depression, and relaxation. Both the perceived and induced emotion findings were replicated using different experimental designs (Study 3; n = 57 and Study 5; n = 81)
These studies have implications for refining the umbrella concept of “sadness” in music research. The results are consistent with the idea that musical “sadness” consists of more than one emotional state.