If you’ve ever experienced the bittersweet sensation of being caught in a miserable music feedback loop – e.g. listening to some of Bjork’s more heartbreaking ballads following a break-up, or diving headfirst into the back catalogue of The Smiths whenever you’ve had a bad day – then you might just breathe a sigh of relief: you might be more normal than you maybe first worried about.

While music has often been linked to patterns and changes in the way that our brains process – it can make us way more productive, given the right kind of track, for example – and how it affects our behaviour, it can also be found to work on helping us process unconscious thoughts and emotions.

Research from various studies has found that our preference for moody, sad songs isn’t just down to the likelihood of listening to them when you’re on the outs. Sad music can in fact act as a mood stabiliser, an emotional support, and even a catharsis inducer, through the power of its generally mellow mood and often reflective, emotionally-invested and soul-searching lyrics.

You probably feel better for feeling worse

For example, Taruffi & Koelsch (2014), a Berlin-based research team, found that conversely to popular opinion, positive feeling (i.e. happiness, calmness, peace) was correlated with listening to typically sad music. The research team asked 772 participants across the globe to describe why they liked the songs they liked to listen to when in times of sadness or low mood, such as following the break-up of a relationship. Taruffi told The Huffington Post: “The most frequent emotion evoked was nostalgia, which is a bittersweet emotion — it’s more complex and it’s partly positive,” Taruffi said. “This helps explain why sad music is appealing and pleasurable for people.”

The research team summarised that: “This is the first comprehensive survey of music-evoked sadness, revealing that listening to sad music can lead to beneficial emotional effects such as regulation of negative emotion and mood as well as consolation. Such beneficial emotional effects constitute the prime motivations for engaging with sad music in everyday life.” In short, listening to negative and sad music makes us feel better because we can use as an emotional outlet. There’s a reason why people are encouraged to listen to sad music when they’re sad; the music connects with the mood of the listener and allows them to express their emotions in a healthy way. Better than that, sad music also encourages empathy, as listeners not only connect with their own emotions, but with that of the musician, and through that, other people who have gone through the same situation, increasing empathy. The research additionally found that happy music for people in a positive mood had similar benefits, but were significantly smaller when compared to the sad music group of the study.

Getting over yourself

Sad music also provides us with catharsis – a painful but necessary and overall positive emotional purification – that is essential to healthy emotional behaviour. For years, science has provided evidence that crying can be a great way to provide catharsis and a positive mood boost, and sad music can facilitate the kind of emotional journey that allows you to let it all go and feel better as a result.

Finally, sad music can develop strong emotional connections with us – even when we’re not feeling particularly sad. Elizabeth Margulis, author of On Repeat: How Music Plays the Mind, said: “A sense of shared subjectivity with the music can arise. In descriptions of their most intense experiences of music, people often talk about a sense that the boundary between the music and themselves has dissolved.” In short, we form attachments to songs we connect to on a personal and subjective level, and so we are much more likely to listen to them repeatedly or in a great number over a shorter period of time. You might be in a good place and feeling happy, and yet find yourself listening to the new Adele song or Joni Mitchell’s ‘Both Sides Now’ a fair amount; this doesn’t mean you’re secretly melancholic – it might just mean that you’re working on your empathy muscles, or maybe just enjoying a song that really speaks to your heart. Nothing wrong with that, right?

Featured photo credit: A. and I. Kruk via shutterstock.com

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