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If, however, we hear such a piece and find our lips quivering and our eyes filling with tears, but — like the toddler hearing “Moonlight Sonata” for the first time — remain fixated on the music until the final haunting note, our reaction may indicate our capacity for reaching outside of ourselves and viewing the world from the perspective of other people, both real and fictional.
Whichever way we respond to a sad song we’ve never heard before — with stony indifference or with a flood of unexpected tears — it likely says a great deal more about us than whether or not we have an “ear” for music.
One possible such explanation is offered by the fact that, in addition to being predicted by fantasy, moving sadness was also positively correlated with the empathy sub-scale "empathetic concern.” Contrary to the related empathy sub-scale of “personal distress,” which is “an aversive, self-focused response involving feelings of discomfort and anxiety,” empathetic concern “is associated with other-focused, pro-social behavior.” For “sadness enjoyers,” as the researchers labeled participants who experienced the highest levels of moving sadness, the intense feelings of sadness evoked by the music sample were directed outward rather than inward.
As a result, their experience of these feelings was aesthetic, and therefore pleasurable, not personally distressing and unpleasant.
In a You Tube video that went viral last year, a toddler attending his sister’s piano recital is moved to tears when he hears Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata.” Among the thousands of comments people have posted about the video, many are from musicians who marvel at the young boy’s sensitivity to music and speculate on his prospects for a musical career (many have even gone so far as to offer to buy him an instrument).
Whatever the boy’s poignant reaction to Beethoven’s famously haunting melody may or may not indicate about his musical abilities, a recent study in Finland suggests that it might reveal a great deal about his personality.
Participants were administered a number of instruments designed to measure personality traits (e.g., the Interpersonal Reactivity Index), and the results were compared with the results of the music-listening experiment to see if any traits predicted individual emotional responses to the sad music excerpt.
While relaxing sadness and nervous sadness were not significantly predicted by any of the individual difference variables, the distinctive combination of sadness and enjoyment characteristic of moving sadness was effectively predicted by the trait of empathy and sensitivity to social contagion.
Both empathy and social contagion involve taking on the perspective of other people.
Researchers at the University Jyväskylä investigated the types of emotions induced in people by listening to unfamiliar, sad instrumental music, and sought to determine whether these responses were consistently associated with individual personality variables.
One hundred and two participants listened to a piece of instrumental music which had been previously determined to induce sadness in listeners, and with which they were unfamiliar (“Discovery of the Camp” from the movie soundtrack).
His books include , as one of the book's fans, along with Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, California, the world's largest Protestant seminary.