It isn’t strange that people really love cheerful songs. You know, the ones you can dance to, sing in the shower to, and drive with the window all the way down to. Many of us can probably admit to blasting our favorite up-tempo song a million times. Pharrell Williams’ “Happy,” Whitney Houston’s “I Want to Dance with Somebody,” and the Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine” certainly put us in the James Brown “I Feel Good” kind of mood.
What is strange is that sad music actually holds the power to make us feel good about ourselves when we are down in the dumps and when we’re already feeling good. If sadness is an emotion we typically try to avoid, why do we listen to sad songs over and over again? What kind of pull do they have on us?
I’ll admit, Adele’s “Hello” is for now my all-time favorite sad song. Even when I don’t feel sad and when I’m not having a bad day, the lyrics of her song reel me in over and over again. It’s somber and sad, yet so very powerful. Does any of this sound familiar? Probably so. And science has quite a bit to tell us as to why we keep certain sad songs in replay mode.
Research Background and Findings
In 2014, Liila Taruffi and Stefan Koelsch at the Freie Universität Berlin in Germany decided to explore the reasoning behind our love of sad songs. They conducted a survey of over 770 individuals from around the world and published their findings in the journal, PLOS ONE. They discovered that overall sad music can evoke positive feelings such as peacefulness, harmony, and kindness. Besides that, the researchers also discovered that sad music causes us to feel more empathic because we connect to the emotions of the artist. We are able to mentally experience sadness without any “real life implications” of a sad event such as the death of a loved one. Such mental exercises can challenge us to reach beyond ourselves and be compassionate to someone else in their time of need.
Whether it’s music, a speech, or art, at our core, we connect to things that touch us personally. It’s almost like being in a support group. Everyone in the group has had the same or similar experiences and by sharing and connecting with each other around common experiences, everyone benefits. When we are connected to something, we unintentionally repeat it, mull it over in our heads, (or in the case of music, replay it). We relate to what is being shared by the musical artists. In so doing, we discover that no boundaries exist between us, and the music is a reflection of our souls. Dr. Robert Zatorre, a neuroscientist at the Montreal Neurological Institute at McGill University said, “We’re not always happy. Sometimes we’re sad. Or Angry. To the extent that you can use music to elicit those moods, and allow you to reflect on your own internal response to those emotions, that can actually be extremely useful and even uplifting.”
Therapeutic Emotion Regulation
Respondents to the survey said when they felt sad or were in a bad mood, they felt better after listening to sad music. The sad music offered an extra boost to their attitude and well-being. In a way, this is similar to how we sometimes feel after we’ve had a good cry. Yes, science says crying can be therapeutic. The sometimes overwhelming feeling of wanting to cry is part of our human response to emotions. It can be therapeutic as well. Researchers found that 90 minutes after participants in a study cried, they reported feeling much better than before they started crying. Songs help to express our inner emotions and to release emotions, permanently or temporarily, that are no longer needed for our health and well-being.
We have come to believe that sadness and any of its counterparts such as depression must be avoided. Indeed, deep sadness that leads to major depression or other disorders should be taken seriously and handled with professional care. However, within the bounds of health and wellbeing, sadness can evoke good feelings and offer emotional regulation. Sad music can encourage prosocial emotions such as compassion, nurture, and empathy. Listening to sad music can connect us with humanity in a way that gives us insight into ourselves, our relationships, and our purpose.
Not all sadness is bad. In fact, as it turns out, Elton John was right. Sad songs really do say so much.