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It’s not surprising that people enjoy upbeat songs like Pharrell Williams’ “Happy,” Meghan Trainor’s “It’s All About That Bass,” or the Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine.”

What' is surprising is the enduring popularity of sad songs like Luther Vandross’ “Dance with My Father,” Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” or Kelly Clarkson’s “Because of You.”

When we are sad, one would think that turning to a happy song could lighten our mood. And when we are happy, listening to upbeat music should help us sustain our good mood, celebrate, or share our joy.

So why would risk losing our good mood, or perseverate a sad one, by listening to sad music at all?

Elevating one’s mood takes energy. It is easier to stay in a state of depressed mood, where we can be still, conserve our energy, feel some self-pity, and perhaps even engender some sympathy or compassion from those who love us. It’s where we can wait to lick our wounds, heal, or be rescued before returning to the challenges we perceive as the recurring battles of living. If our sadness is deep enough, we might not see any point in shaking off the doldrums and striving for happiness again. We might even feel guilty about returning to joy when others have suffered, as if our sadness pays some price imposed by a principled universe. If we have no sense of purpose or cannot set a goal, we might lack the motivation to seek happiness.

The fact that sad music’s appeal spans historical periods and cultures suggests that music-evoked sadness serves important functions. Research has suggested that sad music plays a role in emotional regulation. It evokes pleasant emotions such as bliss and awe, along with sadness, and is more likely than happy music to arouse the intensely pleasurable responses referred to as “chills.” Accompanied by the release of hormones such as oxytocin and prolactin, associated with social bonding and nurturance, sad music can facilitate recovering positive mood. Reminiscent of the psychoanalytic construct of catharsis, contemporary notions of venting explain recovery in terms of satisfying the need to release emotional distress in order to allow for cognitive distancing, reappraisal, and insight.

Whether indulging in sadness helps one to shed emotion and turn to cognitive processing, or deepens one’s sorrow, depends upon the personal and social resources available for moving on. When suffered alone over time, sadness can progress to helplessness or hopelessness. Sad songs counter such deterioration by enhancing a sense of social connectedness or bonding. Research has shown that one of the strongest emotions elicited by sad songs is nostalgia. By triggering reminiscence, nostalgia can remind us of who we once were, how we overcame challenges in the past, and who we are in terms of our relationships to others. Nostalgia is associated with enhanced social connectedness, continuity of self, and healthy ways of coping with stress. Memories of prior achievements, family get-togethers, and activities we enjoyed remind us that, once possible before, joy is attainable again. Remembering that we were once loved, not for what we could do, earn, or give, but simply for who we are reminds us of our enduring worth.

By identifying with the lyrics of a sad song, a listener can empathize with the vocalist and understand that others have shared experiences of rejection, loss, unrequited love, misfortune, or other themes characteristic of sad songs. By placing a listener within a community, reminders of the sorrows of others encourage a sense of perspective. Comparing our problems to others' can help keep a realistic evaluation of the severity of our problems and mute a sense of self-blame, failure, self-pity, unworthiness or guilt.

In 2012, Taylor Swift composed the song “Ronan” in tribute to a four-year-old boy who died from cancer. Adapted from the blog Ronan’s mother kept about her son’s battle against neuroblastoma, the lyrics express loving memories of the mother-child bond: “I remember your blue eyes looking into mine like we had our own secret club.” The song expresses, too, the realization that the battle had been lost: “I remember the last day when I kissed your face and I whispered in your ear. Come on baby with me. We’re gonna fly away from here.” Finally, the lyrics recount the excruciating pain of losing him: “I remember the drive home when the blind hope turned to crying and screaming why.”

The death of an innocent child and the grief of a mother can remind us that misfortune and sorrow are an integral part of life and can be given meaning and purpose when we reach beyond ourselves. Ronan’s mother memorialized the value of his life—“You were my best four years"—and she established the Ronan Thompson Foundation to ensure that his brief life will continue to make positive contributions to the lives of others.

Listening to sad songs that have no direct relevance to our lives allows us to vent sadness in a safe context with no real-life implications or consequences. We can mentally explore worst-case scenarios, knowing that we won’t actually have to confront them. Such mental exercises can promote an attitude of problem solving and a safe venue for hypothetical testing of possible choices. Music-evoked imagination can encourage us to reach beyond our troubles to help others. Compassion for others can comfort us and help us find our own healing.

We have come to assume that sadness is to be avoided and overcome. Certainly, sadness that deepens into depression needs to be dealt with. Within healthy bounds, however, sadness can contribute much to enrich our lives. As a reality check, sadness can curb impulsive decisions and encourage planning for the future. Music-evoked sadness can promote mood sharing and the prosocial emotions of compassion, empathy, nurturance, and forgiveness. Inspiring imagination and reflection, sadness can help us gain insight into what is important, our relationships, and meaning and purpose. Not all sadness is bad.

As Elton John sang: “[T]here are times when we all need to share a little pain...When all hope is gone, sad songs say so much.”

Photo by Krystine I. Batcho

Further Reading

  • Batcho, K. I.  (2012).  Life’s refrain:  The power of nostalgic songs.  Psychology Today
  • http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/longing-nostalgia/201203/lifes-refrain-the-power-nostalgic-songs
  • Batcho, K. I.  (2007).  Nostalgia and the emotional tone and content of song lyrics.  The American Journal of Psychology, 120, 361-381.
  • Batcho, K. I., DaRin, M. L., Nave, A. M., & Yaworsky, R. R.  (2008).  Nostalgia and identity in song lyrics.  Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 2, 236-244.
  • Powell, E.  (2011).  Catharsis in psychology and beyond:  A historical overview.  Primal Psychotherapy Page.  http://primal-page.com/cathar.htm
  • Taruffi, L., & Koelsch, S.  (2014).  The paradox of music-evoked sadness:  An online survey. PloS ONE 9(10): e110490.  Doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0110490

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