Why Does Music Make Us Cry?

Why Does Music Make Us Cry
Why Does Music Make Us Cry

There are as many people who would claim that music does not affect them at all, as the number of people who vehemently say it does. Music is an art form like many others such as painting, dance, theatre, poetry, that is open to interpretation by every individual who experiences it. Each of these individuals could be experiencing a huge array of emotions on any given day and the result is likely to alter or influence how they respond to that artistic stimulus. Music, to my mind, is amongst the most powerful of the arts as it ‘plugs in’ directly to our hearts and minds, perhaps in a way that other art forms do not. In this sense, its effect is often remarkable and, in some instances, life-changing.

Why Does Music Make Us Cry

Music according to Stravinsky is “incapable of expressing anything”. This is a paraphrase of the great Russian composer’s sentiments when he declared that to his mind, music was simply sound that did not directly or indirectly, express emotions. It is on the surface of it an odd statement, given that Stravinsky’s music is some of the most emotionally charged music you will ever hear.

What Stravinsky is claiming is that there is not a specific correlation with the chord of C major for example, and elation or sadness. Where the difference exists, I would suggest is how this chord, melody or rhythm is played. Here the emotional aspect begins to creep in, and here I believe is where we can further explore the title question.

If you ‘google’ music to make you cry, then it is interesting what arrives at the top of the list. These include, according to Classic FM, the 9th Symphony by Mahler;

the 5th Symphony by Shostakovich;

Brahms Horn Trio in Eb; Op.40;

‘La Traviata’ by Verdi;

and John William’s ‘Theme from Schindler’s List’.

Each of these pieces is very different but if you examine them more closely, then there are common links that may open up some reasons for why they make so many people cry.

The Mahler symphony is the last he ever wrote and some would argue that he poured great emotion into its creation. This final movement is a weighty 27 minutes long and quotes not only from other movements of the symphony but also from an earlier work the ‘Kindertotenleider’ which in itself is loaded with grief. It is a reflective and elegiac work whose conclusion seems to run out of energy and dissolve into submissive silence.

The Adagio is dominated by the string section that in itself is capable of enormous levels of expression shown here in the depth of dynamic contrast Mahler uses. The ‘tempo’ is naturally disposed to a more melancholy, sad mood. There is a venerability to this movement in the fragility of the melodic material and exposed instrumentation that varies from solo instruments to complete string sections, wind and horns.

In contrast, the 5th Symphony by Shostakovich is a violently driven and dissonant work full of satire and angst. Amongst all the march-like, frantic outer movements comes the third movement that Shostakovich marks as ‘Largo’. Here is where the outpouring of the composer’s deepest suffering bursts through the symphony in a darkly dramatic piece. There are no brass instruments used in this movement and similar to the Mahler, the string sections take the lead role bringing both gravity and emotional weight to the movement.

Following a distant and lonely solo oboe, the music begins a slow assembly of the threads of the movement that concludes in a hugely climactic moment. At the end of the movement, Shostakovich allows the energy to fade similar to the Mahler, leaving a sense of desolation and uncertainty.

Just in these two pieces that are nearly 75 years apart, some elements may contribute to the ability of these works to evoke sadness in many people. The tempi are both slow, the key of the pieces tends towards the ‘minor’, the Shostakovich scored in F# minor. Strings dominate the instrumentation and the range of dynamics is broad, often used to support long, slow crescendi that culminate in a release of the emotions written into the score by the composer.

Quite frequently both composers use chords or harmony that is dissonant or sounds unresolved to create an emotional tension that forms gradually over prolonged passages of music. The resolution of this tension provides key points in the music that permit emotions to disperse, often only to be created again to even greater effect.

Turning to the ‘Theme from Schindler’s List’ by John Williams, we find many of the same characteristics that can move us to strong emotions. Even if you have never watched this difficult movie you cannot fail to be moved by the sheer expressive beauty of this theme. A solo violin is backed by a symphony orchestra that takes the position of providing a gentle accompaniment and color to the theme.

Williams uses what is termed a ‘harmonic sequence’ for the opening part of the theme that not only reflects the Jewish aspect of the music but makes an instant and memorable impression. This is made even stronger by the sweeping downward and upward motion of the melody that Williams writes in the heartfelt key of G minor. The links to the previous two pieces are not overly challenging to hear and perhaps offer another clue to the imbedded emotional content of the music.

A piece that is not mentioned in the Classic FM list is the Samuel Barber ‘Adagio for Strings’.

This piece has stirred a wealth of profound feelings in so many people, I cannot think of a single individual who I know who has not been affected deeply by it. Originally, the music was from the second movement of his Op.11 String Quartet but is these days better known in its arrangement for full string orchestra. The gently rising melody moves in such a way as to make the harmony below and the counter-melodies almost imperceptible, yet the passion of the music is undeniable.

Once again, we find on closer analysis that the tempo is slow (Adagio), the instrumentation only strings and the key of Bb minor. Barber measures the climax of this piece so cleverly to almost the exact point that we want to hear it at around 2/3rd  of the way through the piece. At this point, the strings have reached the highest notes in their registers supported by the greatest dynamic. A wonderful silence falls directly after and a yearning recapitulation of the opening theme.


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