Why does music make us cry?

Last modified January 29, 2021. Published January 28, 2021.

Sad songs say so much ... about us. (Unsplash/Tessa Rampersad)

Crying as a result of listening to music is complex and personal, but most people consider it to be a pleasant experience — and one that’s more likely to happen late at night and when alone, new research has found.  

While it’s common for music to cause crying, this type of emotional tears differs from general weeping, according to a new paper published Jan. 12 in the Musicae Scientiae journal. The Netherlands-based study found that in addition to feelings of sadness, crying over music elicited strong feelings of being “moved,” nostalgia and powerlessness. 

Waldie Hanser, a Ph.D. candidate at Tilburg University in the Netherlands and the lead author of the paper, told The Academic Times that the relationship between music and tears has not been widely studied in the past, despite the fact that crying appears to be a fairly natural and common response to music listening. 

“We thus set out to write a paper that really focuses on the basics of crying over music and looks at how this and weeping in general are different or similar,” Hanser said. 

The dataset used in the study came from a survey administered to 2,778 adult listeners of Dutch National Radio in 2006. The data was originally collected by Ad Vingerhoets and Ruth Mark, who are both affiliated with Tilburg University and co-authors of the current paper. Hanser is now a Ph.D. student under the supervision of Vingerhoets and Mark.

Although music is often cited specifically as a stimulus that may cause people to cry, few studies have systematically explored the characteristics of these crying episodes in men and women, the research team said in the paper. 

Survey participants were asked about the times they had cried in the previous four weeks. For the times they cried while listening to music, they reported how they felt before, during and after the crying episode, their physical experiences, details of the song they were listening to, the time of day and whether other people were present while they were crying. 

Previous research on general crying has found that women tend to weep more frequently and more intensely than men, and that men tend to weep more for positive reasons than women. Hanser and the research team expected to find similar differences between men and women in relation to crying over music.

Within the past five days of the survey, 50.82% of women and 37.76% of men said they had cried while listening to music, and women reported crying more intensely than men. Most crying episodes lasted less than five minutes, and it was rare for either men or women to cry for longer than 15 minutes due to music.

Crying over music occurred 37.37% of the time in the hours between 8 p.m. and midnight. And 64.25% of the sample reported crying in solitude. And if any others were present during the crying episode, it was likely only one to three people, and most often a significant other. 

“Only recently, we have become aware of the fact that the traditional function of crying — catharsis — may be dependent on the reactions of observers,” Vingerhoets said. “We are now beginning to understand that the importance of crying is more in communication, how it impacts others, than how it directly influences the criers themselves.”

The participants reported that they cried mostly due to sad memories, the lyrics of the song, nostalgia and the beauty of the music itself. Men also reported crying because of the beauty of the music more often than women did.

Before the music-induced crying began, 42.3% of the adults were in a neutral mood, about one third were sad and one quarter were happy; 62.97% considered the crying to be a pleasant experience as opposed to uncomfortable; and 39.81% of the participants felt better mentally after crying while 50.97% felt the same. These figures were mostly consistent between men and women.

The primary emotion that the individuals felt while crying to music was “being moved,” followed by sadness, nostalgia and powerlessness. Other notable feelings were relief, dismay and rapture, the researchers said.

“Being moved” by art is a complex feeling that has not been studied significantly, according to the paper, though there is some evidence that art-elicited tears can be viewed as a physiological expression of such a feeling. The authors cited discussion among psychology researchers as to whether being moved should be regarded as a mixed state of feelings or as a separate, positive emotion.

“Whatever its precise nature, it is clear that being moved plays a major role in the experience of music and peak emotions in particular," the authors said in the paper. “Moreover, being moved in daily life is often associated with the direct experience or the observation of prosocial behavior and interpersonal closeness.”

The paper concluded that crying over music differs from weeping in general because there are smaller differences between women and men in how they experience crying to music versus regular weeping, the emotions experienced while crying over music skew toward being moved and are not largely negative, and observers interact differently with the crier when the cause is music.

“Participants who cried over music also seemed to mostly do this when alone, but when others were present, they were more often met with understanding by others than what is known from the general weeping literature,” Hanser said.

For future research on the intersection of music and weeping, the authors suggested aiming to better understand the situations in which people cry over music, since the emotional experiences of crying episodes seem to depend on environmental context. 

“Music may help to establish a safe environment in which listeners can give in to or work through their emotions without feeling judged,” the authors said. “It may serve as an understanding friend in this context.”

In a paper that Hanser, Vingerhoets and Mark published together in 2016, they found that both music listening and crying are sources of consolation to people, suggesting an important role for lyrics in songs. In a follow-up to the current study, the team is taking a closer look at song lyrics and their impact on emotion.

The study, “Everyday Crying Over Music: A Survey,” was published in the Musicae Scientiae journal on Jan. 12. Waldie Hanser of Tilburg University was the lead author. Ad Vingerhoets and Ruth Mark, both of Tilburg University, served as co-authors.

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