A musician friend of mine, who passed away recently, once told me that he had stopped listening to sad music entirely, and only wanted to hear happy music. He said that life was sad enough on it’s own and that the purpose of music was to alleviate that sadness, not add to it. Another musician friend once told me that sadness was a far deeper, more complex emotion than happiness, and that was why sad music was superior. He said that even in upbeat, major key songs, it’s the sad minor chords that get you right in the heart, that make you feel something deeply. I admit that I am sympathetic to both arguments. Ultimately however I feel that music, like all art, has to reflect the full range of human emotions.
They say that a man ain’t supposed to cry, but you would never know it from listening to popular music, where men are crying constantly, usually over a woman. Music is one of the few areas of life where male tears are acceptable, and in songs the tears flow freely. My favorite example of this is Roy Orbison’s song “Crying”, where he sings the title word over and over again, each time with greater desperation. The story goes that when they were recording the song he was singing the final high note in his falsetto voice, but he couldn’t be heard over the orchestra. On the final take, to everyone’s astonishment, he reared back and sang the high note in his regular voice. This last, wailing note brings the song to a cathartic climax of grief and loss. Self-pity is raised to the heights of poetic anguish.
The idea that people seek out what is pleasurable and avoid what is painful is the basis of western ethical philosophy ever since Aristotle. I believe that the existence of sad music demonstrates something quite different. People want to feel happy, but more than this they want to feel something, anything but indifference, numbness. Depression is often described by its sufferers not as sadness, but as the absence of all emotion, an emotional void. Strong feelings, even negative ones, remind us that we are alive. Of course one could argue that people are still seeking happiness even when they listen to sad music, because they are seeking compassion and empathy, which causes happiness. I think this is trying to be far too clever. I think people listen to sad music because they want to be sad. They listen to angry music because they want to be angry. Happy music to be happy. In order to be something you have to feel something. In order to live intensely you have to feel intensely, and music brings out our strongest feelings like nothing else in the world.