Eerola T, Peltola H-R (2016) Memorable Experiences with Sad Music—Reasons, Reactions and Mechanisms of Three Types of Experiences. PLoS ONE 11(6): e0157444. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0157444
Abstract: Reactions to memorable experiences of sad music were studied by means of a survey administered to a convenience (N = 1577), representative (N = 445), and quota sample (N = 414). The survey explored the reasons, mechanisms, and emotions of such experiences. Memorable experiences linked with sad music typically occurred in relation to extremely familiar music, caused intense and pleasurable experiences, which were accompanied by physiological reactions and positive mood changes in about a third of the participants. A consistent structure of reasons and emotions for these experiences was identified through exploratory and confirmatory factor analyses across the samples. Three types of sadness experiences were established, one that was genuinely negative (Grief-Stricken Sorrow) and two that were positive (Comforting Sorrow and Sweet Sorrow). Each type of emotion exhibited certain individual differences and had distinct profiles in terms of the underlying reasons, mechanisms, and elicited reactions. The prevalence of these broad types of emotional experiences suggested that positive experiences are the most frequent, but negative experiences were not uncommon in any of the samples. The findings have implications for measuring emotions induced by music and fiction in general, and call attention to the non-pleasurable aspects of these experiences.
From the discussion:
Defusing the paradox of pleasurable sadness
The results help us to contextualise several of the conflicting results obtained in the previous studies of music and sadness. First of all, the paradox of pleasurable sadnesss is actually less puzzling if one acknowledges that there are different types of “sadnesses”. Past empirical studies have put particular emphasis on the pleasurable experiences induced by sad music [5, 6, 9, 53], which could be close to Sublime Sorrow or at least Comforting Sorrow identified in the present study. Only few empirical studies have acknowledged the fact that the experiences induced by sad music might actually be genuinely negative, harrowing and unpleasant [18, 22] although such experiences are acknowledged by ethnomusicological field studies [15, 54]. The third factor in this study (Grief-Stricken Sorrow) seems to portray such affective experiences, wherein the thematic analysis of the experiences’ content revealed themes of bereavement, mourning, and loss.Secondly, there seems to be a clear difference between an aesthetic emotion, such as the one labelled here as Sublime Sorrow, and the other type of positive experience, Comforting Sorrow. The latter is related to other people, to social relationships, and is typically more reflective than the experiences induced by moving music, which is one of the hallmarks of Sublime Sorrow. When looking at the qualitative data, lyrics seemed to play a crucial role within the experiences relating to difficult situations of life. This observation stands out in interesting light when comparing it to a finding by Brattico and her colleagues , who discovered that lyrics (or vocal information in general) may be crucial for defining the sadness of a musical piece. Furthermore, in their study, participants judged instrumental sad music as more pleasant and beautiful than music containing lyrics. Thus, it might be that Sublime Sorrow is more relevant for the experiences of listening to instrumental music, whereas Grief-Stricken Sorrow and Comforting Sorrow are induced by vocal music with meaningful lyrics. However, since our participants did not consistently identify the type of music they were describing, this connection can only be speculated.If the differences related to sadness are unacknowledged, this could lead research to either focus on mood regulation strategies  if the emphasis is placed on experiences related to Comforting Sorrow, or to aesthetic experiences  when the Sublime Sorrow is the actual object of study. In some cases, both types of experiences seem to be combined , but such strategies need more refined treatment of the experiences involved in sadness before they will lead to genuinely novel insights on the topic.