Is there any point in listening to sad music?

The best answer, surely, is yes. Whether we can say why the answer is yes may be another matter.

Here's an external reason: untold millions of sane, healthy people regularly have listened and do listen to sad music and find it rewarding to do so. It's possible, I suppose, that this is a kind of pathology, but that seems hard to believe.

Furthermore, there's nothing special about music here. In literature, poetry, film, painting and dance, works that are considered among the greatest human achievement would be counted as sad. For example: I found the ending of Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day (the book deeply sad. (Not the movie, by the way, which in my view had an ending that missed the whole point of the story.) But I also think that reading the novel was a valuable experience. Many others feel the same way.

There's a similar and extensively-explored issue about frightening stories. Many people enjoy reading horror stories and watching horror movies. But why? Very few people want to be frightened in real life.

So far, then: there are many cases that raise the same sort of puzzle as sad music: artistic works that deal with difficult emotions or painful themes. In fact, some people will deliberately avoid at least some such genres. (Not everyone likes horror movies!) If there's no point in listening to sad music then there's no point in any of these other things. But—as already noted—there are too many people who find such things valuable or worthwhile for it to be credible that they have no point.

However, we can still ask what the point might be. Catharsis is one possibility, of course. This is something Aristotle seems to have thought. It would be a sophisticated version of the idea that having a good cry can make you feel better. Another more interesting possibility is that art dealing with difficult themes lets us explore important aspects of life at one remove from the real thing. Thinking about the character of Stevens might provide me with a kind of emotional understanding of the consequences of cutting oneself off from vital parts of oneself. It might also increase my ability to empathize with the real-life analogues of someone like Stevens. It might enrich the ways that are available to me for thinking about the world.

Music isn't literature; music doesn't represent possibilities in the way that literature does. But there may be similar things to be said. Sometimes a sad piece of music seems to express something I'm feeling, and having it expressed may both provide a sense of relief (something like catharsis) and also make me feel less alone because it reminds me that there are others who have felt as I feel. There's also an undeniable kind beauty in some sad music, even if it's hard to say just what that consists in. I can appreciate the beauty without actually becoming sad myself.

However, there's a further and much simpler thing that needs to be said: something can be valuable, whether or not we can say why. The fact that we persistently find value in listening to sad music (or reading tragic literature, or...) gives those things a point. That's because, other things equal, there's a point in doing things that we persistently find valuable. This may be a truism, but it's still true.

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