Add this site to your Home Screen by opening it in Safari, tapping and selecting "Add to home screen"

Our panel of 90 professional philosophers has responded to

Question of the day

The best answer, surely, is yes. Whether we can say why the answer is yes may be another matter.

Here's an external reason: untold millions of sane, healthy people listen to sad music and find it rewarding. It's possible, I suppose, that this is a kind of pathology, but that seems hard to believe.

There's nothing special about music here. In literature, poetry, film, painting and dance, sad works abound. I found the ending of Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day deeply sad. (Not the movie, by the way; in my view the ending missed the whole point of the story.) I'm also glad I read the book. Many others feel the same way.

Scary stories raise a similar puzzle. Many people read horror stories and watch scary movies. But why? Very few people want to be frightened in real life.

So far: art that deals with difficult emotions brings up the same sort of puzzle as sad music. If there's no point in listening to sad music, there's no point in any of these other cases. But too many people find such things valuable for it to be believable that they have no point.

We can still ask what the point might be. Catharsis is one possibility (think of the idea of having a good cry.). This is something Aristotle considered. Another possibility is that art dealing with difficult themes lets us explore important aspects of life at one remove from the real thing. Thinking about the character of Stevens might provide me with a sense of the consequences of ignoring vital emotional parts of oneself. It might help me empathize with the real-life analogues of someone like Stevens. It might enrich the available ways for me to think about the world.

Music isn't literature; music doesn't represent possibilities in the way that literature does. But there may be similar things to be said. Sometimes a sad piece of music seems to express something I'm feeling, and having it expressed may both provide a sense of relief (something like catharsis) and also make me feel less alone because it reminds me that there are others who have felt as I feel. There's also an undeniable beauty in some sad music, even if it's hard to say just what that consists in. I can appreciate the beauty without actually becoming sad myself.

However, there's a further and simpler thing to be said: something can be valuable, whether or not we can say why. The fact that we persistently find value in listening to sad music (or reading tragic literature, or...) gives those things a point. That's because, other things equal, there's a point in doing things that we persistently find valuable. This may be a truism, but it's still true.