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Why Music makes you cry?

Ever find yourself moved to tears by music? Mascagni’s “Intermezzo” from Caballeria Rusticana does it for me. How about you?

Many types of music can move people to tears; blubbering in the balcony is iconic in opera. The phenomenon of crying sparked by music is an interesting, but little-studied behaviour.

According to some studies, whether music does or does not make you feel like crying reveals something about your fundamental personality, and the particular shade of emotion gripping you as you feel choked up is different for different personality types.

Researchers Katherine Cotter and Paul Silvia of the University of North Carolina, and Kirill Fayn of the University of Sydney, collaborated on research to investigate the emotions that people experience when music makes them feel like crying. Evoking emotion is the main point of music, after all, so perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised that songs can put a lump in our throats. Music can calm or excite; it can motivate, uniting worshipers in peace and devotion, or driving people into battle with the sound of drum and bugle. Crying is a complex human behaviour that can accompany a variety of intense experiences. It can be provoked by grief, as at a funeral, but also by extreme happiness, as at a wedding. But helplessness, gratitude, and other subtle emotions can also provoke tears. What emotion do most people feel when they are moved to tears by music?

The researchers surveyed 892 adults to determine how many had experienced feeling like crying while hearing music, and what emotion they were feeling at that moment. The first finding is that being moved to tears by music is not unusual; 89.8% of the people in the study reported that they had experienced feeling like crying by hearing music.

The participants were asked to rank their emotional feelings accompanying that response across a spectrum of 16 emotions, including euphoria, happiness, awe, anxiousness, sadness, depression, etc. The researchers found that people who had been moved to tears by music could be clearly separated into two groups: those who felt sadness, and those who felt awe. The majority (63%) reported feeling sad when music made them cry, and 36.7% reported feeling awe. Is there something about the personalities of people in these two different groups that could explain why these two very different emotional reactions — sadness and awe — provoked tears while listening to music?

The participants in the study had been given a psychological test to classify them according to five personality attributes — neuroticism, extraversion, openness to experience, agreeableness, and conscientiousness. When the researchers sorted the data, they found that people who ranked high on the neuroticism scale experienced sadness when they had been moved to tears by music, and people who scored high in the openness to experience scale felt like crying because the music provoked a profound sense of awe.

In Mascagni’s “Intermezzo”, the emotion evoked is definitely awe. I feel awed by experiencing the extraordinary and moving piece. I guess my reaction puts me among the minority who cry at music because it invokes awe, compared to the two-thirds of people who cry because a song is sad. If the correlation with personality traits is correct, I should not rank particularly high on the neuroticism scale (thankfully). But I’m not too sure.

This thought-provoking study is a good start, but it has some limitations. The experimental group was comprised of college students, which may not adequately reflect the population as a whole. Also, 69.6% of the participants were female, and the possible effect of gender was not analyzed. Another consideration is that in relying upon each person’s recollection of a time in the past when they had felt like crying while listening to music, the study depends on self-reporting to be accurate.

But in my opinion, human emotions are complex. They don’t always fit like pegs into the slots that researchers provide in their experiments. I remember recently being moved to tears while hearing Leonard Cohen’s song “Hallelujah”. The predominant feeling I had at the time was sadness. I was thinking of all the loved ones we have lost during this pandemic and how the world still has to overcome racial, religious and social injustice, the horrors of a war, etc.

But it was not only sadness that I felt as I listened to the song. It is possible to experience both sadness and awe simultaneously. I felt a bittersweet mix of sadness and awe. Then I felt very motivated to try to make the world a better, more peaceful place, to inspire students to be better human beings, and do it with the only thing I have — music.

Music is powerful indeed! Unfortunately, the world we live in today is full of weapons, wars, injustices. Perhaps what the world needs now is a few less bombs and a lot more music.


***Taken from an article of psychologist R. Douglas Fields Ph.D.


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