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Even Scientists get the Blues 01 Jan 1970

Even Scientists get the Blues image

Even Scientists get the Blues

Amanda Tyndall, Festival & Creative Director, Edinburgh Science

Know that feeling when you’re down and all you want to do is listen to a sad song? Ever wondered why it is that on the back of a terrible day, when you really need cheering up, you turn not to that disco track but, in my case, to Joy Division, or Eta James? We’ve all got songs that make us smile, or cry, but just what is it about music that excites the passions and can move us to tears, fill us with joy or, in the case of the Blues, sometimes do both?

An ex-boyfriend of mine studied sonic art, part of which was the study of psychoacoustics. This might sound a wee bit pretentious (as was he!) but in fact psychoacoustics is simply the study of the relationship between sounds and their physiological and psychological effects. Or put more simply, the effect of music on mood. So what does science have to say about our love of melancholy music? What is it about the Blues that, can make you feel anything blue and can instead uplift the spirits and bring its own kind of joy?

Is it simply that ‘A trouble shared is trouble halved’? and that in singing, or listening to, the Blues we discover that we’re not alone in our suffering. Perhaps there’s a bit of that, but there’s more to it. A 2013 study in Frontiers in Psychology found that sad music induces pleasant rather than negative emotions [1], while a 2014 survey showed it to help with emotional regulation; evoking a wide range of ‘sublime’ emotions, including nostalgia and a sense of peace, and helping us to process our emotions by prompting reflection and contemplation [2]. In the words of one of the authors “The most frequent emotion evoked was nostalgia, which is a bittersweet emotion – it’s more complex and it’s partly positive. This helps explain why sad music is appealing and pleasurable for people.”

Science writer Philip Ball calls on the work of musicologist Leonard Meyer who proposed that we feel emotion in music when music deviates from our expectations. The idea being that “If our expectations are momentarily foiled and then met, the payoff is greater than if gratification is instant. We experience tension and then release, which is far more satisfying than just bland predictability…These violations of expectation seem to take a shortcut to the ’emotional brain’ without the intervention of the rational brain.’’ [3]

But what about Blues in particular? Blues melodies are often based on a minor scale, accompanied by major chords, which results in a discrepancy between the frequencies of the chords and the frequencies used in the melody, creating the 'typical' blues sound. Apart from this tension between minor and major scale Blues and jazz musicians use this deviation from the obvious to great effect with the so-called blue notes, which have an inherently imprecise pitch and can be ‘bent’ to manipulate the intonation. This all sounds rather technical but fear not, Ball sums it up perfectly when he says that “The most wonderful thing about music’s ability to evoke emotion is that it works for almost all of us, and we don’t even need to put any work in to acquire that receptiveness. We just have to listen for the sheer enjoyment of it. Our incredible, pattern-seeking brain does the rest, without our even noticing… A capacity for musicality is not a rare gift at all. It’s something that we all possess to some degree or other. It’s a part of being human.” [3]

So at a time when the world is in turmoil, emotions run high and we all have more than our fair share of down days, why not stick on your favourite Blues tracks and be uplifted.

[1] Sad Music Induces Pleasant Emotion:

[2] The Paradox of Music-Evoked Sadness: An Online Survey:

[3] What Science Says About The Mood of Music:


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