Minor Keys

What makes sad music sad?
Ay, ay, ay Tunes: Wail, rent your garments, and gnash your teeth over The Walrus’s mix of the twenty most depressing songs ever.
I‘ve never met Garnet Rogers. For all I know, he’s a very nice man; like his late brother, Stan, he sure can sing. But ten years ago, he nearly killed me at Ottawa’s tulip festival, and I’ve wondered ever since whether certain musicians shouldn’t issue statements at the beginning of their concerts: Warning: This performance contains vocals, lyrics, keys, and chords that may induce debilitating sorrow in some listeners. Listener discretion is advised.

I don’t remember the actual song, only the abject melancholy that flooded through me upon hearing Rogers’ spare guitar and soulful baritone waft over the crowd of happy, paint-faced children, batik peddlers, and poutine eaters wandering amid the waving tulips. No one else seemed particularly bothered by the dissonance between song and scene, but all I wanted to do was escape down to the riverbank and weep.

It wasn’t the first, nor last, time a piece of randomly encountered music would ambush me, and amplify my sadness, almost unbearably. Once, it was the mournful saw of violins accompanying a video at the Canadian Museum of Civilization about early logging. Or it could be a Rufus Wainwright song sneaking up on me from the car radio. I soon became hypervigilant at recognizing that first down spiral of mood, and adept at the quick lunge for the off button. Music, once a comfort and a source of pleasure, had become a minefield.

Sensitivity to sad music was just one troublesome symptom of what was eventually diagnosed as clinical depression. It was only after many months of taking citalopram — a common drug in the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (ssri) category — that I realized the sad-music thing wasn’t happening to me anymore. Puttering in the kitchen one morning with the radio on, the sound of a violin stopped me — “Field of Stars,” by violinist Oliver Schroer, a song recorded during his walk along Spain’s ancient pilgrim trail, the Camino de Santiago. Schroer’s wailing fiddle, echoing through an old stone chapel, did make me sit down and let the tears come to my eyes — but they were the cathartic, opening kind.

Soon I stopped fearing music, maudlin TV commercials, and Animal Planet programs about cruelty to chimpanzees. I was still able to feel sadness, but I was not so overwhelmed by the emotion. And I became curious; exactly what was going on in my brain to make me so vulnerable to music in the first place — and why was a pill able to change all that?


Antidepressants, we know, affect the activity of neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine, and hormones such as oxytocin, all of which are involved in the experience of pleasure. These are the hormones that become seriously impaired when a person is depressed. But what is the specific link — if it exists — between mood and musical expression? Searching for answers, I turned first to the neuroscience of music, a thriving field of research that has spawned two current bestsellers — Oliver Sacks’ Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, a collection of strange tales about the human relationship to music, and Daniel Levitin’s This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession, which details recent neurological findings. Among them: what’s happening in the brain when music uplifts us; why bits of music can lodge in the brain (the dreaded “earworm” or “tune cootie”); and theories of how and why music — in all its pitches, tempos, keys, and rhythms — has played an integral role in the evolution of the human species.

Levitin is a psychology professor who runs the Laboratory for Music Perception, Cognition, and Expertise at McGill University. Before becoming a psychologist, he was a session musician, sound engineer, and record producer for the likes of Stevie Wonder and Blue Öyster Cult. When I call him on the phone, he sits down at the piano in his Montreal home and plays a riff of trilling high notes, followed by a slow series of notes lower down the scale. It makes the obvious point, that what we think of as sad music tends to be quieter, lower, and slower, with longer duration in tones and a darker timbre than “happy” music. But why one person listening to such music would recognize, but not necessarily feel, the emotion of sadness, while another is consumed by it remains a difficult question to answer. “The relationship between art, creativity, and mental illness is not easily reduced to brain parts,” Levitin admits. “There’s a messiness to emotions, [and] I’m not sure I’m willing to say that it’s a disorder — that someone who is deeply moved by music needs to take a pill.”

He goes on to quote a conversation he recently had with Joni Mitchell. “I said I’d had a difficult period with some colleagues and had found it hard to control my emotions, to which she said, ‘Why the hell would you want to do that?’ For an artist like Joni, the whole point is to be completely in touch with the volatility of emotions.” Stevie Wonder once told him that “he often couldn’t finish a take, because he’d be on the verge of tears. I don’t think that’s a bad thing.” Artists offer consolation, Levitin says. “It’s like you’ve been cut off from your emotions, and suddenly there’s another person feeling what you want to feel. They’re on the cliff edge with you, and, more than that, they’ve taken their despair and turned it into a beautiful piece of art. It’s inspiring.”

In Musicophilia, neurologist Sacks praises music’s ability to restore pleasure and feeling to those numbed by grief, and recounts how, after the death of a beloved aunt, he couldn’t mourn, until he attended a concert and heard The Lamentations of Jeremiah, by an obscure contemporary of Bach named Jan Dismas Zelenka. “My emotions, frozen for weeks, were flowing once again.” After the death of his mother, he walked around New York, “lifeless as a zombie,” until he heard strains of Schubert from an open basement window. “I wanted to linger . . . Schubert, and only Schubert, I felt, was life.”

If Sacks were to visit the International Laboratory for Brain, Music, and Sound Research in Montreal, he would make an ideal subject for research undertaken by neuropsychologist Robert Zatorre and his McGill associate Anne Blood. In 2000, they performed positron emission tomography (pet) scans on ten McGill students trained in music as they listened to pieces they had chosen, and to which they had previously had “an intensely pleasurable emotional response,” including the all-important “chills.” Selections included the Intermezzo from Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor, and Barber’s Adagio for Strings. Blood and Zatorre found that the greater the chills, the more they observed changes in heart rate and respiration, and the more blood flowed into brain regions believed to be involved in reward and motivation, emotion and arousal — the same pleasure centres stimulated by food, sex, and addictive drugs. “Music, although it is abstract, still seems to activate the same neural pathways,” says Zatorre.
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5 comment(s)

AnonymousApril 17, 2008 15:11 EST

sad songs ...blue moods of spain by SPAIN

aceApril 26, 2008 09:31 EST

Kate and Anna McGarrigle: Matapedia:
"Why Must We Die?"

AndreMay 14, 2008 06:02 EST

This was a great story. Generally when I read articles where authors try to explain something like music or sex or love from a psychological or physiological framework I am left feeling like the elementary aged children on The Simpsons who are sitting in a semi-circle listening to Prof Frink explain the vast intricacies of a play toy.

Minor Keys was fun to read

Sarah S.October 18, 2008 16:27 EST

I couldn't believe my eyes when I read the names Garnet Rogers and Rufus Wainwright. They are both in my top five list of favourite musicians. I grew up listening to Garnet (I'm 23 now) and I discovered Rufus about 5 years ago. I have suffered from depression, anxiety and an eating disorder since my early teens, and Garnet's music in particular has often been both profoundly comforting and provocatively painful. His voice is like no other in the world. I understand, though, that when you're not prepared to hear something, the urge to turn it off is very strong. At times, sad music helps me release my pain, at others it is a painful reminder of feelings I am keeping hidden and am not ready to deal with. I will never stop listening, though.

AnonymousNovember 14, 2010 15:20 EST

This is an all-time favourite article of mine. Simply fabulous—I keep coming back to it again and again. Bravo

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