All of Us Are Searching for an Open Arm: The Uprising of Sad Music in the Media

Ever since the great tearjerker of ’11, the media has seemingly at last seen fit to begin a shift in focus toward a more somber melody. With a growing spotlight on artists such as Adele, Muse and Interpol to Chelsea Wolfe and Zola Jesus, songwriters would seem, in some cases, to be enjoying a more visible success specifically due to the inclusion of the melancholy than in recent years. For some, largely gone are the days of the I, IV, V and in are the repeated inclusion of the appoggiaturas and resolving minors. 

John Sloboda, a professor of music psychology from my alma mater (Guildhall School of Music and Drama, London) states it like this: “Your hair’s standing up on end, shivers going down your spine, a lump coming into your throat, even tears running down your eyes.” And how is this? These effects are not solely felt, they are physiological responses to a specific perception-but do we even know what we’re perceiving? Just yesterday, Research Digest brought attention to a bit of qualitative research being done by Annemieke Van den Tol and Jane Edwards (University of Limerick) regarding the negative experiences of 65 individuals, and the music they chose to listen to. The research then would obviously fall into two separate themes or categories-the strategy adopted in music selection, and the function the music serves.

Without regurgitating the large amount of insight that many other researchers have almost simultaneously come across, there are definitely a few reoccurring themes in explanation of why people gravitate toward sad music:

  • Distancing (the act of distancing oneself from a sad experience via listening to sad music)
  • Desire for connection (in order to connect life events and current mood with a choice in music)
  • Trigger (in order to connect with an experience or person lost via nostalgia and emotive progressions)
  • “As The Spirit Wanes The Form Appears” (my personal favorite, exhibiting belief that when the spirit is most tried and tested, one is able to more fully come to grips with the state of things around and within them, and reach out for either a  perceived or real hope)
  • Common humanity (in order to feel part of a greater puzzle-instead of feeling isolated and alone, one may feel they are being reached out to via the lyricism or voice of the music and are thus part of a “larger human experience”)
  • Control (although sad music obviously often evokes melancholy emotions, they would seem to be separate from reality. These sad events are not actually happening in real-time, not unlike when we read sad fiction. We are able to experience sadness without any real threat to our safety, mental state or well being. Richard Kunert has written a great post on precisely this over at Brain’s Idea which walks through this a bit more in depth. Richard states:

Prolactin is a hormone associated with feelings of tranquillity, calmness, well-being, or consolation. Huron (2011) suggests that the body uses it to counteract grief and thus avoid descending into an uncontrollably depressive episode. Such hormonal counter-measures to negative environmental inputs are also found for physical pain. Physical pain is reduced by endorphins. Such a bodily mechanism can be exploited – as when heroin addicts fool the brain’s response to pain. Huron (2011) proposes that sad music can activate the counter-measures to actual sadness – i.e. prolactin production – without any real sadness being present. One gets the hormone’s consoling effect without the sadness and might thus actually enjoy it. (Kunert, 2012).


I’d like to briefly focus on the last theme of control: what does this say for people who suffer from mental illness, post traumatic stress or major trauma? These circumstances largely represent a loss of control for the subject. This loss of control is often to blame for irrational and impulsive behaviors. Suicide, acts of self-inflicted harm and many crimes of passion are the ultimate act and statement of control-which is the very override we’re trying to buy time against in the amygdala when thinking in terms of behavioral manipulation.

My friend and fellow music psychology comrade Kelty Walker put it this way: “Same goes for any emotion, song, genre, movie, book, person, car, job, and yes, belief system. Anything that elicits a response in the amygdala can be used to condition ourselves into our desired state. Now, if only we were more widely aware of it…”


In the spirit of “sad” music and emotional/physiological response, I’m enclosing one of the most powerful songs (and experiences) of my life. There are few songs which elicit the type of response this work is capable of in me-in any situation, mindset or setting. Come 3:15, the response is quite Pavlovian.


The Neuroscience of Emotional Pain, and the Necessity of Perceived Control

Two nights ago, I read what I believe to be the most personally relevant and  meaningful article I’ve come in contact with in nearly a year. I do not say this lightly,  because I remember the last moment in time I felt this way. I read Halden’s post  entitled Bonhoeffer and the Theology of Romantic Love  not when it was originally  posted in 2008, but a couple of days after New Year’s Day, 2011. It came at the  perfect time-as does the one I’ve just read-because it is about love and loss; rejection and isolation. What  isn’t, after all? Love and death are the strongest of motivators and ordeals, and death  would seem sterile and void of strife were it not for love.

Unfortunately, great as the ups may be, so great are the downs. Having a fair bit of  recent exposure to both tribulations, I would like to share some insight I’ve found in  direct correlation to the more neuroscientific side of things.

At UCLA in 2003, a study was done explicitly on the neural correlates of social  rejection entitled Does Rejection Hurt? An fMRI Study of Social Exclusion. Obviously,  anyone with access to the internet and a free subscription to a science mag online  could tell you that these have been done before; it’s nothing new to observe the psychological underpinnings of pain when a child is picked last (or not at all) for a game of sport after school. It is new information to me, however, that the physiological aspects in the pain of rejection have now proven quite similar to any other type of physical pain: when we lose someone we love, for whatever reason it may be, it literally hurts. The abstract of this article below may better explain the premise:

A neuroimaging study examined the neural correlates of social exclusion and tested the hypothesis that the brain bases of social pain are similar to those of physical pain. Participants were scanned while playing a virtual ball-tossing game in which they were ultimately excluded. Paralleling results from physical pain studies, the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) was more active during exclusion than during inclusion and correlated positively with self-reported distress. Right ventral prefrontal cortex (RVPFC) was active during exclusion and correlated negatively with self-reported distress. ACC changes mediated the RVPFC-distress correlation, suggesting that RVPFC regulates the distress of social exclusion by disrupting ACC activity.[1]

In the aforementioned, we see that this test was administered to children whilst playing in a ‘virtual ball tossing game’ where they were eventually excluded. If the ACC activity is ‘disrupted’ by such a common and (what many might view as childish experience) what can we say of the potential for anguish of those who lose a spouse? A parent? A child? Of those not only excluded, but abandoned? This brings me to the article in question. Though I’ve found the writing and vocal stylings to stem from a slightly more youthful (and charmingly so!) perspective than I’ve become accustomed in my daily journal fix, pain is pain is pain. We don’t need sappy (and wonderful) song lyrics from Blindside  to tell us that ultimately, at the end of the day, we’re in this together. All of us are searching for an open arm. I could go on forever in tangent about why I can’t wrap my head around referring to God as ‘big other’ or humanity as at last to be but cold, selfish and detached. There is something else at work here, when one experiences pain beyond a certain magnitude. Christie Wilcox does a fine job of breaking this process down for us:

 Evolutionary biologists would say that it’s not surprising that our emotions have hijacked the pain system. As social creatures, mammals are dependent from birth upon others. We must forge and maintain relationships to survive and pass on our genes. Pain is a strong motivator; it is the primary way for our bodies tell us that something is wrong and needs to be fixed. Our intense aversion to pain causes us to instantly change behavior to ensure we don’t hurt anymore. Since the need to maintain social bonds is crucial to mammalian survival, experiencing pain when they are threatened is an adaptive way to prevent the potential danger of being alone.

Christie goes on to state the unfortunate obvious: sometimes understanding the evolutionary biology or even rationale behind it all is simply not enough. We may now see the possibly the main hook for me in her article: she turns to music. We all know the studies on how exercise/having sex/listening to music/interacting with art, etc. are proven to release dopamine, arousing feelings of happiness and positive valence. The thing that really caught my attention is something I’m shocked I had not let sink in previously: music stimulates and creates a feeling of control. I cannot begin to list the litany of mental illnesses that include negative outcomes which seemingly stem directly from a perceived lack of impulse control, but just for effect, I will name a few:

A)    ASD (Autism, Asperger’s)

B)    Attention Deficit Disorder

C)    Manic Depression

D)    Paranoid Schizophrenia

E)    Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

F)     Borderline Personality Disorder

G)    The paraphilias (exhibitionism and pedophilia)

H)    Various disorders advocating self-harming behaviors

The list plainly goes on and on. From the little I’ve observed in various interpersonal encounters in various stages of life, very few of us enjoy a major lack of control; those suffering from preconceived abandonment/loss apprehensions, even less. Here we have the ultimate tie-in that I seem to be making quite a lot lately: Chalk one more up for music psychology. I would be telling a blatant untruth if I refrained from admitting I too have found listening to music to be all of the above: exhilarating, liberating, calming, but more importantly creating the massive sensation of immediate…not necessarily peace, or ease, but control.

As I draw near to the day when I must nail down my precise research proposal for graduate school, I’ll again briefly show how this relates to what I want to do, and feel can be done. In that exact moment of conflict (commonly the amygdale hijack) our mental, emotional and physical actions are crucial. Countless sufferers of self-destructive behaviors including those who engage in self-inflicted physical pain, sexual promiscuity, domestic violence, and kleptomania suffer from a perceived lack of control-and will do anything to reclaim it. If one is in control, there is a (even if false) sense that everything will be okay; that everything’s not lost. I very simply believe that like many other (‘healthy’) activities that people engage in, music can be an instantaneous way for the patient to achieve, even if for a moment, control. 

I certainly here digress, but will continue this thought process further in future posts.

[1] Science 10 October 2003:
Vol. 302 no. 5643 pp. 290-292
DOI: 10.1126/science.1089134

She’s Lost Control: Amygdala Hijack?!

She’s Lost Control

In considering the why, and now the how of better implementing tools made available in music psychology, I am consistently struck by how very complex our musical preferences and responses are as humans.While avoiding the attempt to craft any groundbreaking expository theories,  I’d like to visit a motivation of mine in the field whilst bringing attention to an old Joy Division favorite. First, I will disaggregate the various schools of thought that overlap in this field of music psychology.  What do the following have in common?

1. Existential and phenomenological psychology

2. Jungian personality dichotomies

3. Psychological resilience

4. Malabou’s concept of neuroplasticity

5. Psychoanalysis

6. Advances in the neurological study of fear

7. Critical understandings of cultural and societal treatments of emotion

8. Music

In addition to composing the framework of my greatest motivators toward an existential understanding of life, I’d posit that not only do they contribute to the eventual pragmatic method I seek to establish in a clinical therapeutic setting, they are necessary in totality. The more I engage a dialogue regarding the concept as a whole, the more I am struck by just how much need be taken into consideration as well as shedding some light into my peculiar distaste for ‘music therapy’ as a solitary solution. Though music therapy practices have occasionally been proven effective for various wellness processes in young children as well as adults, I remain skeptical. I would argue that one need explore deeper into the psyche, history and personality of the patient. Far too often we see music therapy studies carried out on young adults in particular that prove completely blanketed – with the total exclusion of considerations such as gender, individual neuronal histories and variance in personality.

To come quickly to the point, I recently posed a vital question: In the occurrence of a (negative) amygdala “takeover”, what is the immediate goal? Is it to utilize music to objectify the patient’s feelings, or to quickly placate and soothe the individual’s distress (particularly if the patient suffers a history of auto-destructive behavior)? My response to the above is both, but objectively more as well. Here are a few thoughts to consider which barely skim the surface in composing the process of discerning what type of method and music should be used:

  1. History of Mental Illness (i.e. What are the immediate concerns? Has the patient demonstrated a capability or propensity for harm to self or others?)
  2. Medical and Psychiatric History (Has there been any type of surgery or modification in brain chemistry or anatomy?)
  3. Socioeconomic Background (What types of music to which the patient been exposed as a part of their ‘nurture’ upbringing, and the extent of music appreciation in their cultural worldview?)
  4. Religious/Familial/Educational background (i.e. unconscious and conscious conditioning-in what context has the patient learned or been taught to treat music? Is it a daily ritual, mainly a social luxury, rite of a religious tradition, utilized in education, etc.)
  5. Personality (What characteristics of extroverted or introverted personality types are being displayed?)
  6. Musical Preferences and Affect Regulation (How and to what extent are they affected by repetition, unfamiliar versus familiar rhythms and meters, Eastern/Western depictions of consonance and dissonance, ‘major’ versus ‘minor’ tonalities, etc.)
  7. Musical Propensity and Skill in Practice or Performance
  8. Existential values and spiritual/moral motivations of the patient

On the tip of the iceberg of gaining a general understanding of the patient, we see already that the answer lies beyond sitting down with a troubled teenage male, playing a bit of Mendelssohn and assuming to illicit the disclosure of an exhaustive account for discord with his father. Establishing a rapport and fluency over the course of time, making the effort to implement music he responds to, and eventually gain an empathetic understanding of how to meet him on his level, however, is something I’m interested in.

I’d like to now return for a moment to the ultimate motivator and the necessity for this type of process. When I speak of the amygdala hijack, I am referring to the very instance in which the fight or flight response occurs. Although the ‘limbic system’ was long perceived to be an emotional center of the brain, the amygdala has been found to be the main ‘limbic’ area involved clearly implicated in the processing of threats. A ‘hijack’ occurs when our brain responds to threats; devoid of reasonable consideration or logic. Typically, when we are presented a stimulus, three events occur: we sense (visual, aural, olfactory, touch, etc.), we process, and we react. These occur in rapid succession. At the moment the threat is processed, the amygdala can override the neo-cortex, a center of higher thinking which deals with sensory perception and motor commands, and initiate an impulsive response (which holds the potential of negatively producing instances of destructive behavior and emotional irrationality). Because it is easier for the amygdala to control the neo-cortex by arousing various brain areas than it is for the neo-cortex to control the amygdala, the ability to shut down anxiety producing hormones and emotions is no simple feat, and proves an exquisite challenge in undertakings of crafting a therapy.

One theory (enter elements of LeDoux, Goleman and Damasio) is that if we can slow or somehow manipulate this hijack process, we may buy ourselves the time it takes to properly process the stimulus, and respond in an appropriate, healthy fashion. LeDoux was hopeful about the possibility of learning to control the amygdala’s impulsive role in emotional outbursts: “Once your emotional system learns something, it seems you never let it go. What therapy does is teach you how to control it – it teaches your neocortex how to inhibit your amygdala. The propensity to act is suppressed, while your basic emotion about it remains in a subdued form.” My theory? We can do it with music.

In closing, I’d like to briefly provide an example of my conviction that the above considerations are essential for a beneficial psychologist/patient relationship. It would seem safe to assume that were we to randomly sample a group of 1,000 healthy, typically functioning women age 18-30, and narrow from there the women who have an extensive knowledge and listening history of the English ‘post-punk’ band Joy Division, we would be presented with an entire spectrum of emotional affect regarding participant’s specific and individual musical associations. Obviously this study is strictly hypothetical primarily in that were we to stop there, the comorbidity and variables would be obscene. My point is, it is almost guaranteed that there will be few in this clinical group who associate exclusively a strictly negative or strictly positive sentiment, and valence and arousal reaction to any one specific selected musical styling of Joy Division. Human experiences, associations and implicit reactions are unique, thus requiring a highly individualized method of interplay. I leave you now with a narrative appropriate to the study itself, with the hope of one day creating a methodical approach designed to alleviate the anxious and distressed of this very sentiment.