Well, it’s that time of year folk; the time where you are either happy to be around loved ones or sad you are by yourself.

For those of us in the latter category, I have good news for you. Sad songs can make you happy. (The operating word here is “can.”)

Seems counter intuitive. doesn’t it? Kind of like drinking booze to get sober, but let me explain. Humans listen to music depending on their mood. For example, when I’m at the gym I listen to Limp Bizkit or Eminem for the adrenaline rush. When I’m driving, I listen to the oldies station to help deal with the stress of rush-hour traffic. And, when I’m sad, I can’t help but listen to Spanish love songs.

The reason for this, according to recent research, has to do with where you were raised. A recent study in Frontiers of Auditory Cognitive Neuroscience analyzed music not as entertainment but as language.

For those of us who listen to music in the western hemisphere, we tend to associate sad music with what is known as “minor key tonality.” Western music has major keys and minor keys. (Feel free to ask any musician if you are unfamiliar.)

In other areas of the world, major or minor tonality does not have the same meaning as it does to us.

The study looked at newborn babies and how they use rhythm and sound in order to process information.  The researchers found that to non-verbal babies, speech sounds similar to music.

As we grow older we become acculturated to associate certain types of music as being sad or happy. The study defined sadness as “the negative and unplesant psychology of emotion.” When we hear “sadness,” our brain processes it through our cultural lense.

However, researchers also found that when our brain listens to sad music, it already knows it’s a cultural expression of sadness instead of personal sadness and automatically re-interprets that as pleasure.

A famous example is when we see Olympic athletes cry after they win a gold medal. To understand this, we need to remember the difference betwen felt emotion and perceived emotion.

Felt emotion is personalized and perceived emotion is understanding the emotion being conveyed without personalizing. Listening to music falls under the latter category. Even though we may sob while listening to it, it can actually have healing qualities that can even lead us to catharsis.

Sad music, similar to exercise and sunlight, can help us heal, but remember that just as with everything else in life, moderation is key. Listening to too much music (happy or sad) can give you a headache, just like too much exercise can cause muscle strain or too much sunlight can give you sunburn.

Now if you will excuse me, I have to go listen to “Luz de Dia” by Enanitos Verdes for the 30th time while I cry myself to sleep.

Just kidding … happy holidays.

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