They tell you when you’re feeling blue to put on a sad song. But, new research published in the International Journal of Arts and Technology suggests that the music we choose to listen to is guided more by familiarity than whether we are in a happy or sad mood and whether or not a particular piece of music is joyful or otherwise.
Jiyoun Kim of the School of Communication, at Florida State University in Tallahassee, USA, explains that previous research had suggested that both sad and happy individuals will often listen to sad music rather than energetic and joyful music. However, Kim hypothesized that sad people will tend to listen only to familiar music whereas novelty will pique the curiosity of happy people. She has now tested this idea with some surprising results.
Music can change the way we feel, whistling a happy tune, as it were, can lift one’s mood, while balladeer Phil Collins once reminisced about how playing a sad song when he was feeling sad always made him, if not happy, better. As an easily accessible form of entertainment in today’s world of portable music players and digital downloads, it seems easier than ever to use music to affect one’s mood. “One explanation for why sad individuals are attracted to sad media entertainment is that they seek the dramatic features of those sad media contents and the touching feelings they experience after experiencing them,” says Kim.
For some reason, feeling sad seems to attract people to listen to sad music (although defining what is “sad” in a piece of music is difficult). Repeated experience of listening to sad music when in a sad mood tends to increase how well the individual rates that particular piece of music. But what of unfamiliar sad music? Kim hoped to discover whether or not feeling sad attracted people to sad music even if they were not familiar with it. She compared the experiences of volunteers in the US reporting different moods when exposed to familiar, joyful American music and sad Korean music.
“The results confirmed that the familiarity of the music is more important factor in music selection than one’s current sad or happy feelings,” Kim explains. “Both sad and happy participants showed similarly low preference for the unfamiliar sad music over the familiar energetic music.” Unexpectedly, the unfamiliar and sad, low-energy music improved the mood of sad participants.
“Selecting familiar music regardless of mood could indicate the listeners’ expectation for greater enjoyment from that music than from unfamiliar music,” Kim adds. “There is always the possibility that unfamiliar music could result in great enjoyment, but the uncertainty of such a possibility seems to prevent people from exploring it,” she says. The findings could have implications not only in the area of music therapy for mental health problems, such as depression, but might help inform marketeers hoping to sell different kinds of mood music.
Jiyoun Kim (2011). Affective states, familiarity and music selection: power of familiarity Int. J. Arts and Technology, 4 (1), 74-89
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