In the early 1930s, a Hungarian composer named Rezső Seress sat down at his piano to create a musical composition that, he hoped, could encapsulate the emotional turmoil that had consumed his life. Seress’s composition, entitled “Gloomy Sunday,” very quickly became a global phenomenon – but for all the wrong reasons.“Gloomy Sunday” gave rise to a worldwide suicidal contagion, with at least 17 suicides in Hungary, and an estimated 200 suicides worldwide, being linked to this haunting tune. But what was it about this composition that made it so deadly?
One potential explanation for this song’s haunting effects can be understood through the lens of neuroscience. The song “Gloomy Sunday” is written in the minor key, which means that – due to the spatial relationship between the notes and chords found in the minor key – the song creates a heightened degree of sensory dissonance for its listeners. This sensory dissonance, as opposed to the sensory consonance found in major key music, has been universally tied to unpleasant feelings and emotions – perhaps because minor key music impacts the medial prefrontal cortex, which can trigger an increase in levels of anxiety and neuroticism in its listeners.
But could this be enough to drive the song’s listeners to commit suicide? Of course not. This neurological component is only one small piece of the fatal puzzle that is “The Hungarian Suicide Song.” There is no one explanation that can fully address the strange effects that this song seemed to have on its listeners. Instead, it was the unfortunate interaction between countless factors that paved the way for “Gloomy Sunday” to go down in history as the most deadly song the world has ever known.
Wondering what ever became of the song’s creator, Rezső Seress? Well, in January of 1968, Seress died. His cause of death? You guessed it – suicide.