Why Do Sad People Like to Listen to Sad Music? Psychologists Answer the Question in Two Studies

I find it sur­pris­ing that psy­chol­o­gists have only just begun to study the rea­sons that sad peo­ple love sad songs. There’s an entire genre named after sad­ness, and the blues inspired near­ly all mod­ern music in one way or anoth­er. Clas­si­cal music is filled with dirges, ele­gies, laments, requiems, and “count­less tear-jerk­ers.” Lis­ten to the music of any ancient soci­ety and you will like­ly find the same. Humans, it seems, have some innate need to hear sad songs.

Maybe this isn’t too sur­pris­ing. We aren’t the only species to expe­ri­ence grief, but we are the only one to have devised lan­guage, and ways to make it sing to us. We tell sto­ries of loss through music, just as through every oth­er art. This expla­na­tion hard­ly sat­is­fies sci­en­tif­ic curios­i­ty, how­ev­er. Psy­chol­o­gists want to know, specif­i­cal­ly, why we do this. Or—more specifically—why sad peo­ple do this.

Maybe not every­one enjoys the maudlin jan­gle of The Smiths dur­ing a breakup, or wants to lis­ten to Leonard Cohen after a loss. But enough peo­ple do that scenes of sad char­ac­ters lis­ten­ing to sad songs (or being sad while sad songs play) are some of the most mem­o­rable, and mem­o­rably par­o­died, in movie his­to­ry. Researchers Anne­mieke Van den Tol and Jane Edwards at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Lim­er­ick want­ed to under­stand the phe­nom­e­non in a 2013 study, so they sought out par­tic­i­pants online.

The researchers opt­ed for a lim­it­ed qual­i­ta­tive approach to get the ball rolling. “This issue has hard­ly been inves­ti­gat­ed before,” writes Chris­t­ian Jar­rett at The British Psy­cho­log­i­cal Society’s Research Digest. Their sam­ple con­sist­ed of a self-select­ing group of adults, age 18 to 66. Thir­ty-five of them were men and 30 women. Most of the respon­dents were Irish, though some were also from the Nether­lands, the U.S., Ger­many, and Spain.

Each of the study par­tic­i­pants was asked to describe a spe­cif­ic time in their lives when “they’d had a neg­a­tive expe­ri­ence and then chose to lis­ten to a sad piece of music.” Their descrip­tions were then ana­lyzed for recur­ring themes. Among the most com­mon were nos­tal­gia, a desire for con­nec­tion, and a sense of “com­mon human­i­ty.” The par­tic­i­pants also cit­ed aes­thet­ic appre­ci­a­tion and a “re-expe­ri­enc­ing of their affect” in which the sad song helped them express their feel­ings and find relief.

A more recent study pub­lished in Emo­tion con­cen­trat­ed its focus. Rather than sur­vey­ing peo­ple who had had sad times in their lives—a cat­e­go­ry that includes pret­ty much everyone—researchers at the Uni­ver­si­ty of South Flori­da sur­veyed peo­ple with major depres­sion. Their sam­ple size is hard­ly any larg­er, and the par­tic­i­pants are more homoge­nous: 76 female under­grad­u­ates, half of whom had a diag­no­sis of major depres­sive dis­or­der and half of whom did not.

The study repli­cat­ed meth­ods used in a 2015 study to find out whether peo­ple with depres­sion tend­ed to choose sad music over “hap­py and neu­tral music,” writes Jar­rett. That turned out to be the case, the researchers found. The rea­son sur­prised them. Against “the provoca­tive idea” argued in oth­er research “that depressed peo­ple are seek­ing to per­pet­u­ate their low mood,” the study instead found that those “who favored sad music said that they did so because it was relax­ing, calm­ing or sooth­ing.”

In some ways, the answers aren’t sig­nif­i­cant­ly dif­fer­ent from those of peo­ple who are not clin­i­cal­ly depressed but still expe­ri­ence peri­ods of deep sad­ness. Sad songs give mean­ing to our pain and let us know we aren’t the only ones feel­ing it. But we know this. Every­one has at least one or two sad songs that soothe them, and some of us have whole playlists of them. The Paste mag­a­zine staff put togeth­er an excel­lent list of songs that helped them “hurt so good.” It’s got some of the finest writ­ers and singers of sad songs on it: Tam­my Wynette, Elliot Smith, Tom Waits, Pat­ty Grif­fin, Prince, by way of Sinead O’Connor. If one of your sad songs isn’t on here, you’ll prob­a­bly find a few new ones to add.

I’d sug­gest for inclu­sion, to start, The Cure’s “The Same Deep Water as You,” Etta James’ “I Rather Go Blind,” Bon­nie ‘Prince’ Billie’s “I See a Dark­ness,” Radiohead’s “How to Dis­ap­pear Com­plete­ly,” and The Smith’s “That Joke Isn’t Fun­ny Any­more.” Tell us, what would you add—and why would you want to do a thing like lis­ten to sad music when you’re already mis­er­able? Tell us your rea­sons, and your songs, below.

via Research Digest

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The 10 Most Depress­ing Radio­head Songs Accord­ing to Data Sci­ence: Hear the Songs That Ranked High­est in a Researcher’s “Gloom Index”

Nick Cave Cre­ates a List of His 10 Favorite Songs–His Favorite “Hid­ing Songs”

Bill Mur­ray Explains How He Pulled Him­self Out of a Deep, Last­ing Funk: He Took Hunter S. Thompson’s Advice & Lis­tened to the Music of John Prine

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (15)
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  • anon says:

    For those pre­dis­posed to this con­di­tion, I rec­om­mend the sec­ond move­ment of Rav­el’s Piano Con­cer­to in G.

  • Paul says:

    Joy Divi­sion has sad­der songs than “Love Will Tear us Apart” I would pick “New Dawn Fades” or “24 Hours” both songs are full of Ian Cur­tis’ cries for help.

    the Smiths also have a bevy of sad songs and I agree “That Joke Isn’t Fun­ny Any­more” is a bet­ter choice than “There is a Light and it Nev­er Goes Out”, but I would choose “I Know it’s Over” holy sad­ness!

    Smash­ing Pump­kins “Stum­bleine” has always felt very sad to me.

    All time tear­jerk­er for me is Gorec­ki Sym­pho­ny 3 “The Sym­pho­ny of Sor­row­ful Songs” thet title says it all the Dawn Upshaw ver­sion has haunt­ed me from the very first time I heard it.

  • Climacus says:

    There is a close rela­tion­ship between music more gen­er­al­ly and sad­ness, or at least the “sweet sad­ness” of long­ing and nos­tal­gia. One rea­son may well be that the right-hemi­sphere, which is pro­found­ly involved in lis­ten­ing to and mak­ing music, is the more “melan­cholic” of the hemi­spheres in terms of emo­tion­al tone. Iain McGilchrist’s The Mas­ter and His Emis­sary treats of this bril­liant­ly, in case any­one is curi­ous. Even “joy­ful” music often car­ries traces of unful­filled long­ing with­in it.

  • Chris says:

    Beethoven’s Moon­light Sonata

  • Lindsay Menelaws says:

    ‘If It Be Your Will’ by either Leonard Cohen or Antony and The John­sons (depend­ing on how much emo­tion you wish to plug in to) is a great com­fort after los­ing a loved one.

  • Alexis says:

    This is one I go to when I’m down: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r‑U3B1vomR4. Also, Brahms Fourth Sym­pho­ny.

  • Alvarez Alexis says:

    This is one I go to when I’m down; Theme to Mer­ry Christ­mas, Mr. Lawrence, Ryuichi Sakamo­to Trio. And Brahms Fourth Sym­pho­ny. Also, just about any­thing by Rach­mani­noff or Chopin.

  • Lola says:

    Famil­iar music that com­bines joy and long­ing often gives me a solace of sad­ness, like the low strings in Tchaikovsky’s oth­er­wise light Waltz of the Flow­ers, or yearn­ing lyrics over the bounc­ing beat in Cyn­di Lau­per’s Girls Just Wan­na Have Fun.

  • Arlynda says:

    And then there’s Hamil­ton, about which a friend quipped, “If you love Hamil­ton, then one thing I know about you is that you like cry­ing for fun.”

    This per­haps falls under “re-expe­ri­enc­ing their affect,” but I think at least for many neu­ro­di­ver­gent peo­ple, there’s a ten­den­cy to be self-con­scious about one’s own pain, to over-ana­lyze it, to wor­ry that feel­ing it is self-indul­gent, to think that we should be strong, etc. But cry­ing over oth­er peo­ple’s pain, which is what lis­ten­ing to sad songs allows us to do, feels like sim­ple empa­thy — it’s not as sub­ject to the same sort of self-cen­sor­ing. So we lis­ten to sad songs in order to feel our pain via the pain of oth­ers.

  • Stephen Monteith says:

    It’s a lubri­cant. We *need* to feel sad. There are so many things in life that teach us being sad is “bad”, that we need to cheer up and look on the bright side and accen­tu­ate the pos­i­tive, but the truth is, when things are bad, we need to let our­selves feel bad. It’s just plain health­i­er. And sad songs help our brains process these sad feel­ings, allow them to run their course.

  • Philip Nel says:

    For loss/mortality: War­ren Zevon’s “Don’t Let Us Get Sick,” Emmy­lou Har­ris’ “Bang the Drum Slow­ly,” Jesse Win­ches­ter’s “All That We Have Is Now,” and the Max Richter/Dinah Wash­ing­ton mash-up “This Bit­ter Earth / On the Nature of Day­light.”

  • Lúcio Saretta says:

    I used to lis­ten Chet Bak­er singing songs such as “But not for me”, “Deep in a dream” and “You don’t know what love is”.

  • Jac says:

    Very insight­ful; I had­n’t thought about it like that before.

  • Lawrence Bryan says:

    Cathar­sis. At Christ­mas time I almost always go into a depres­sive mood. So I lis­ten to the last cho­rus of Bach’s St Math­ew’s Pas­sion and set there cry­ing. When it is over I wipe the tears away, feel much bet­ter and go to sleep. Works every time.

    Why do folks with a toothache press on the tooth to make it hurt even more? When you stop press­ing it hurts less than when you start­ed press­ing.

  • Niklas says:

    Not in Eng­lish, but if you look up “Tvärs över mitt hjär­ta” by Swedish singer Mau­ro Scoc­co, you will find that the music in itself is for a bro­ken heart. Should­n’t be too hard to google trans­late the lyrics either.
    “Straight across my heart, your name is for­ev­er writ­ten”.

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