How can music be sad?

During a dinner conversation with friends who had just returned from a trip to Lisbon I asked if they had heard any Fado singers while they were there. They said they’d planned to but one of their Portuguese friends told them the music was very sad so they decided to skip it. My reply was, “But if you don’t speak Portuguese, it’s not sad!” 

That was said partly as a joke because I own quite a bit of Fado music by Amalia Rodrigues, Christina Branco, Ana Moura and others and I agree with them, I don’t speak a word of Portuguese but some of those songs do indeed sound sad. 

But how is it that we are wired so that music stirs that feeling of sadness without words? Or happiness? And how universal is it?

Like most real art, music is pretty much a universal language, even though there are of course cultural variations. Music doesn’t even need lyrics to sound sad, e.g. Tchaikovsky’s Marche Slave.

If you’re interested in this topic you’ll probably enjoy reading, "This Is Your Brain On Music."
I have a pretty interesting record in my stacks called De De Lind, named after a Playboy bunny from the ’60s. It’s pretty rare:ò-Uomo-Il-Nome-Che-...
It’s fado singing set against a band that sounds like a cross between Sabbath and Deep Purple.
Music either resonates with ones senses or it doesn’t. That is just one possible way enabled by our ability to hear. All our life experiences are made possible by ones senses.
Music connects to that deeper part of your brain; the part of the brain that doesn't analyze but that simply reacts to primal stimuli. 
 Play major chord vs a minor chord on a piano or guitar.
A major chord tends to affect the emotions with a "pleasant" feeling. A minor chord may have you feel the opposite-tense, apprehensive, even sad.

There's some science behind  why our brain interprets major/minor chords the way do.
there is a main 4 note sequence and the cadence and up-down cascade of the four notes is what carries the flavours or emotional depth of most music.

Rick Beato has a great video on this. Can’t remember the proper name of it. But once you watch the video, you’ll never think of music the same way again.

It is tied to how we express emotion in language, one might say.
To see what I mean, follow the note ’up-down’ sequencing in this, a little bit called ’Amber’.

A near perfect example of injection of emotion in music. Think of being told a story.

A melancholy message and how the voice would carry the meaning, the intensity and depth, the power of the words.
Music to hear, why hear'st thou music sadly?
Sweets with sweets war not, joy delights in joy.
Why lov'st thou that which thou receiv'st not gladly ...
I'm not sure humans understand why some music or songs bring a tear to your eye.  A nice cut of Amazing Grace, or The Mystic by Morrison, or Islands in the Stream, by Dolly P. & Kenny.  The list goes on, it's amazing and wonderful!!
Islands in the Stream and Amazing Grace? Wow, that's surprising. The one is a pleasant pop song to me, and the other is an overexposed bore.
"once i was" has hardly any minor chords, just one i can tell, but it definitely is a heartbreaking song. a variable combo of minor/diminished chords and sad lyrics plus a lilt/catch/quaver in the singer’s voice, seems to be the valve that turns the waterworks on.
Only if it talks about mama, trucks, trains, prison, rain or getting drunk...
A profound question! Many composers and great musicians did NOT think music expresses emotion at all. Toscanini, asked by a journalist if he found the first movement of Beethoven's "Eroicia" symphony "heroic," replied testily: "Heroic my ass! It's allegro non troppo!" And yet, funeral music would be inappropriate at a wedding (one hopes), and dance music is inappropriate at a funeral. Part of the reason is just tempo, obviously, but only part.

I'm a philosopher, and have taught classes about this. If you're curious, the philosopher Schopenhauer has the most famous, and best thought-out theory of exactly how and why music can move us, and what it means that it does. But that theory depends on buying into his elaborate metaphysics of the will.

I was in NYC during the 9/11 disaster, when the Berlin Philharmonic was scheduled to perform. They rarely travel, and have visited NY only a few times in a century. They'd planned a challenging program of mostly contemporary compositions. When the Twin Towers came down, they changed the program: to Beethoven's Ninth. "Alle Menschen werden Brüder...." It brought everyone in the audience to tears. (There are at least two books about the political use of Beethoven's Ninth, by the way.)

Perhaps the larger question raised here is what "emotions" are, what they signify. To deny that music can be expressive is a little like denying that feelings or meaning are real. Which is not an impossible position. In R. Crumb's great Zap Comix, Flaky Foont frequently asks Mr. Natural "What's it all mean?" Mr. Natural always answers in the same way: "It don't mean shee-it!" 
Great question. Taking a different approach from Schopenhauer, the older idea of the music of the spheres is suggestive, especially when brought into the conversation that some musicologists are having about universal music. Does our music, and even the musical sounds animals make (whale song, for instance), echo something else, something that transcends the physical world? Do our notes and expressions serve as a kind of call-and-response to something? This gets into metaphysical concerns, but it does lead to considerations of why human cultures have so many different forms of music that yet have so many commonalities.

How about happy-sad music? That's how one student once described the clarinet in the Adagio of Mozart's Clarinet Concert. "Autumnal" etc., but with an underlying joyfulness. That's weird, and beautiful.  
The "music of the spheres" was probably meant as a mathematical idea, having to do with the ratios of planetary orbits. Plato thought that such massive objects moving rapidly through space must make a sound--but that sound would have been determined by "rational" intervals best (or most abstractly) described by mathematical relations. Even before Plato, Pythagoras noticed the mathematical relationships between octaves, etc. Much of our musical terminology (e.g., harmonic mean; chord progression; time signatures expressed in fractions; even pitch, measured in cycles per second) derive from the language of mathematics. In this context, Leibniz remarked that music was "an unconscious exercise in arithmetic in which the mind does not realize it is counting."

But one must be careful in supposing musical aesthetics to be "universal." Japanese music, Indonesian gamelan music--and, for that matter, ancient Greek music, so far as we've been able to reconstruct it--don't rely on the key relationships we take for granted in western music. The perception of "beauty" in music, and also mood, is a highly culturally specific thing, and depends on musical conventions that are not universal.
All these thoughtful responses have made me think about the question a bit more. Does our emotional reaction to music come from the same place as our reaction to the tone of someone's voice? Even when we can't see someone's face, as when we're talking to them on the phone, we can tell how they're feeling by the sound of their voice, or at least we think we can. 

Whether there's a definitive answer I'm glad the question managed to bring together Tolstoy, Shakespeare, David Allen Coe, Schopenhauer and Black Sabbath.
The GREAT thing about music is it can be a best friend to anyone in any stage of your life.
To snilf:

It's a good question to ponder, the universal nature of music, or its cultural specificity. The Bach phenomena in Japan is interesting in this regard. A 17th-century German Lutheran composer whose very cultural-specific music somehow becomes all the rage among late 20th/early 21st-century Japanese. How is that possible? The perceptions of beauty would seem to differ, yet the popularity of Bach's choral music in contemporary Japan begs some questions. The high suicide rates and despair evident in Japanese society, according to some interpreters, suggests a fertile ground for the sense of hope that animates Bach's music. Not just the lyrics of his orotorios, passions, or cantatas, either, but the music itself. It doesn't seem to matter that Bach's music is rooted in Early Modern western patterns, and that these are foreign to Japanese modes of thought. The response to the efforts of Masaaki Suzuki and his Bach Collegium Japan suggests that the bridges assumed by advocates of the music of the spheres are more than imaginary constructs rooted merely in ancient mathematical ideas. 

The conceptual origins of the music of the spheres provide a foundation that developed in different directions, mathematical, metaphysical, and musicological. Some current theories, even if speculative, remind us that the different languages of music transcend the local, and that our emotional response to sound waves requires a whole lot of wonder and curiosity. Count me in. 

Interesting point(s). I don't want to suggest that there aren't "universal" dimensions to music--or, for that matter, to sound more generally (thus, to include other animals, and perhaps also plants, as responsive to some of the same auditory stimuli we respond to). Moreover, I'm no Japan scholar. So take what I'm about to say with a grain of salt.

From what I've read, Japanese culture marked a radical transition after WWII and the atomic bombings. Prior to that, Japan was culturally isolationist. After that, Japan, especially the young, passionately embraced the western cultures that had defeated them in the war, especially America. Hence, the obvious and genuine interest in western music among late 20th century Japanese. Some of the greatest "western" musicians of that recent period were Japanese; the Suzuki Method of music pedagogy was developed there; Japanese students are way over-represented in good music academies; etc. etc.

Which is to say that the (recent) Japanese love affair with western music is not necessarily indicative of the "universality of musical aesthetics." Rather, it's historically determined--and historically limited.

To return to the question of this thread, then: if music can be widely perceived as sounding "sad" or "happy" or "profound," then one supposes there must be some objective feature to account for such agreement. I'd argue, however, that such features must be recognized to be culturally specific--that, without "training the ear" (and by that I DO NOT mean going to music school, but rather, just living in an environment permeated by music, and unconsciously, or at least not deliberately, assimilating certain patterns and relationships between tones), the perception of musical "meaning" (sad, happy, whatever) isn't possible. The hypothetical human being "raised by wolves" will not perceive music in the same way you or I do.

And so, if it's true that "music soothes the savage beast," it's not because that beast perceives it as "soothing," but for some other reason (like the "soothing" sound of a gentle rain, or whatever). 

Just some random thoughts. 

Regarding tone of voice--are you really sure you can read tone of voice accurately? Probably you can with people you know well, even on the phone. But with people you don't know, or especially with people whose native language is different from yours, I suspect things are quite otherwise.

I'll give you a few examples to explain what I mean. The first time I heard my own voice on a recording, I was shocked. It did NOT sound at all like it sounds to me, and therefore, it did (does!) not express the emotion I mean it to express when I speak. I've tried to learn to do this more effectively--I suppose actors must be good at it, but I'm a professor and need to communicate effectively every day, so I should be, too. Still, it's very disconcerting to hear my voice as I suppose others must hear it. As several philosophers have pointed out, we get our "selves" from others.

Here's another example. My wife is from Croatia, and we've spent a lot of time there. To my ear, Croatians always sound angry--and this carries over to a native Croatian speaker who speaks in a different language. I met my wife at a language school in Germany; even Germans, who speak a notoriously commanding language, tended to recoil from her when she was trying to sound friendly.

Conversely, I've spent time in Italy, although I don't speak Italian. Listening to Italians argue sounds to me like they're flirting--just as Croatians flirting sound to me like they're arguing.

Cultural conditioning again. There just aren't many "natural" cognitive judgments in anything, in my opinion--not in aesthetics, or politics, or even ethics (despite what we'd like to believe). What we see, hear and think is filtered through a complex system of neurons that are patterned in part by environments. What seems "natural" to us is highly structured, conditioned, mediated.

I think opposing cultural influence and objectivity is unnecessary. My example, and your response, suggests that such an either/or is too simple. I wasn't talking about Japanese composers, musicians, and students as much as listeners. How do we account for so much interest among the laity? Among those not trained in academies or educated in the west? The fact remains that in a society that has experienced high levels of culture-specific despair, something is breaking through from the outside.

I see little reason to relativize this experience. Yes, everything you say about cultural conditioning makes great sense. It's necessary to point this out, but hardly sufficient. Otherwise any real contact with others becomes impossible. Those articulating the constellation of ideas associated with the music of the spheres were cognizant of the local, but they weren't limited by it. It's a modern notion that we have somehow overcome the parochialism of the past, that we recognize for the first time that context is not only important, but the only thing. 

Subjectivity and objectivity are not opposed, but complementary. Again, if this wasn't true, there's no way that any form of communication—musical included—could happen except in the most surface of ways. My Japanese example was meant to illustrate that music reaches through and beyond the limitations of local culture. To me, and to many others, past and present, that suggests that there is something in music that speaks a "universal" language. One we all hear, and filter in different ways. But it's not simply local.

Which means that there can be a sadness etc. that can be heard in music. One we may need to learn to hear, of course. But the fact that we can learn it is important. And just because we learn something doesn't make it relative to environment.

If I stole your record collection and your audio equipment, your immediate response would tell me more about what you believe than any talk about cognitive patterns. Again, you're opposing things that need not be opposed. "That's wrong!", which you would yell as I carried off my haul, is hardly only a culture-specific response. Mediation never implies or demands relativity as you suggest. Otherwise mathematics, not to mention our topic of music, is nonsense.

I'm not sure I understand all you've written here. Perhaps we might continue this discussion privately.

But I will say this: I'm not trying to "relativize" anything, unless by "relativize" you mean only that experience is relative to the experiencer. That's certainly the case; how could it be otherwise? We're all human, so we can suppose that there are various things we have in common; this is what makes communication possible.

Yes, "subjectivity and objectivity are not opposed, but complementary"; I completely agree. But that's because what's "objective" is really just universally subjective. That is, what we take to be "objective" is really only what any subjective perceiver will similarly experience. Space and time are "objective" in that sense; they are universal features of any human experience. Of course, experience is itself necessarily "subjective"; it happens within a consciousness, not out there in the world. So even mathematics is "true" to the extent that it describes experience in ways that are constant across different consciousnesses. That doesn't make it "nonsense"!

But hey--this has long since turned into a philosophical discussion, and I don't think any of our fellow Audiogoners want to follow such a thread too far. Again, I'm open to continuing privately.

Thanks for the conversation.