People who feel the pain of sad songs may be better at feeling the pain of other human beings

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Image: Reuters/Francois Lenoir
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Morrissey fans could have a leg up on this one.

While research into human cognition has long noted that music—chords, harmonies collections of sound comprising something of a universal language—has a profound relationship to the thoughts and emotions of people all over the world, a new study published in the scientific journal Frontiers of Psychology peers into qualities and effects specifically associated with sad music.

Think somber, angsty, tugging-at-your-heartstrings type of melodies. According to the study, appreciation for such melancholy tunes is intriguingly linked to one particular trait: empathy.

People who report being “moved” by sad songs demonstrate higher levels of empathy than their peers, say the study’s three academic authors, who asked 102 participants to listen to a particular piece of music and answer detailed questions about their experience. Those who were barely affected by the music scored low on questions measuring emotional responsiveness to other people, while the opposite held true for people who felt strongly about the music.

“Music appreciation involves social cognition,” Tuomas Eerola, a music cognition professor at Durham University, explains. “People sensitive and willing to empathize with the misfortune of another person—in this case represented by the sad music—are somehow rewarded by the process.” In other words, empathetic people tend to enjoy sad music more than others because they get a certain satisfaction from it, on top of sheer aesthetic appreciation.

As to how that satisfaction arises, exactly—the study’s authors note that further research in the area is needed for a full understanding of the complex ties between music and emotional intelligence. Prior examinations do note that sad music tends to offer cathartic effects, though it’s not clear exactly how.

Participants in the Frontiers study listened to”Discovery of the Camp,” a haunting instrumental composition by Michael Kamen featured in HBO’s World War II miniseries Band of Brothers. Test your personal empathy levels by listening to it below: