The Personality Trait That Makes You Cry at Sad Music

Photo: Enrico Fianchini/Getty Images

Do you have one of those songs? You know, the one that punches you right in the feelings every time, and doesn’t let up until they leak out your eyes? And then every time you hear the Titanic theme song, or whatever it is, you have to pretend there’s something in your eye or loudly insist that it’s allergy season?

Well. If any of that sounded familiar, here’s a piece of life-affirming news: It’s okay! It’s nothing to be embarrassed about. It’s maybe even something to be proud of: A study recently published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology and highlighted by Quartz found that people who feel more moved by sad songs also tend to be more empathetic.

The study authors recruited 102 people between the ages of 18 and 67 to listen to eight and a half minutes of Discover of the Camp, a piece of instrumental music that’s been used in past research to evoke sadness. After taking in the song, participants filled out a questionnaire about how the song made them feel and took a series of tests designed to measure empathy. Based on the emotions the participants described, the researchers divided the responses into three categories: relaxing sadness, which they described as “positive, peaceful and relaxing emotional responses to sad music”; nervous sadness, characterized by a sense of anxiety or fear; and moving sadness, defined as “a complex and intense emotional experience, involving both aesthetic, enjoyable emotions and feelings of sadness.”

When the study authors compared their subjects’ responses to the empathy tests, they found no relationship between empathy and feelings of nervousness or relaxation. But when they focused on moving sadness specifically, Quartz explained, “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.”

It’s not the most surprising finding in the world, but it does add a little more nuance to what we know about the link between music and emotions. “Music appreciation involves social cognition,” study co-author Tuomas Eerola wrote in a recent column on the Conversation. “People sensitive and willing to empathise with the misfortune of another person — in this case represented by the sad music — are somehow rewarded by the process.”

Scientists haven’t yet nailed down the purpose of that reward, he explained, but there are a few theories: If crying activates hormones that bring feelings of comfort, then perhaps “even a fictional sadness is enough to fool our body to trigger such an endocrine response, intended to soften the mental pain involved in real loss.” Or it could be that “the capacity to understand the emotions of others is crucial for navigating the social world we live in, and therefore exercising such an ability is likely to be rewarding — due to its evolutionary significance.”

Whatever the reason, consider this study your liberation: Feel free to stick in your headphones and blast the Celine Dion without shame. Just make sure you have tissues handy. 

The Personality Trait That Makes You Cry at Sad Music