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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  • 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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