Why We Love Sad Music

Mourning our pain.

Posted Nov 28, 2018

 Phintias/Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)
Source: Phintias/Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)

After we recently put out an informal Facebook survey on what music people listen to when they are down, my son and I received 71 responses in 24 hours. Each person sent their go-to music or even long playlists. All were very enthusiastic about this question.

Surprisingly, people put on music that matches their sad mood rather than music to cheer them up. Paradoxically, it doesn’t depress us more, it is comforting. People choose music that fits with their mood. By entering the mood space one is ensconced in the resonance of feeling. One is at home, is encompassed and feels held.

Let’s say a loved one has died, or maybe you are going through a bad break up or a divorce. If you are sad, unhappy, feeling miserable, what music do you choose? Sad music carries us deep inside sadness itself. In a state of mourning, one needs to feel the pain. One needs not to be alone. One needs emotional holding. One needs a loving community. One also needs a private space for meditative reflection. One needs time.

Music is both a communal and personal experience. It both joins us together and allows for personal space and time.

Consciousness is a synthetic illusion created by the brain. Communication can only take place indirectly, never directly. The way we communicate is through art forms: language, physical gestures, reading and writing, visual art, music, writing, theater, prose, poetry, and dance. It is how my consciousness connects to your consciousness. If we cortically share the same symbolic codes of an art form, I can express my imagination and feelings expressively, and you can receive my imagination and feelings receptively. When you read this article, your brain reads these 26 black symbols on a white page. You receive what I express and fulfill it with your imagination. These symbols operate through our deeply learned visual and auditory mastery of language via reading and writing,

Regarding language, if you and I both master English, then we can communicate through the learned art form of speech. If I only speak English and you only Russian, it will sound like gibberish. We need shared, learned symbolic form. It is the same with music. If you and I both share the same symbolic code for scales, we can communicate expressively and receptively via music. Music, unlike most other art forms, has no visual referent. It always creates feeling and mood. Music proceeds through the auditory centers, and always through the amygdala and limbic system. Through creating a mood you can indirectly paint a visual picture which you can invent with your own imagery.

Our narrow focus is on sadness. The mourning of a loved one’s death is the specific and literal biological operation for the repair and healing of emotional pain. The mourner must face and go through the pain of all the feelings from losing his old attachment. This process digests and deactivates the loss of a deeply held old play where the loved one is present, in order to accept a new play where the loved one is gone. To digest the old story and mourn those feelings takes a long time, from one to many years. One has to go through the Kubler-Ross stages of Denial, Bargaining, Anger, Sadness, and Acceptance. The specific stage where sad music works its magic is, of course, Sadness. This is contingent on the musician and the mourner having learned the same symbolic form for the scales.

By being immersed and held in the art trance of sad music, we feel the sadness.

It surrounds us, it enters inside us. We feel. We feel the painful longings, the painful loss. The mourner has to let go of his deeply held old play of love where he is not alone. He has to move towards accepting the new play where the loved one will never be here again. The mourner has to traverse wanting to remain with the loved one in death in order to come back to the land of the living. He has to accept the new play where the loved one is gone and he is alone. Then he can properly carry the old play in memory. He can feel and miss the lost love without demanding the old story. One never completely heals from significant loss. The old play always lives inside, deactivated, but it’s there. Sad music will always touch us and bring back the nostalgia of loss. The sad music meets your emotional state and allows for the mourning. It holds you and allows it to happen.

How does music penetrate to the receptive insides of the mourner? The two major scales in Western music are the major scale and the minor scale. The only difference in the major and minor scales is a the minor scale has a diminished 3rd, 6th, and 7th. That’s it. Yet these changes in the scale makes all the difference in the world. Scales create mood. The major scale communicates the heroic—"Beethoven’s 3rd, Eroica." The minor scale, when soft, communicates sadness—"Eleanor Rigby," by The Beatles; when loud, it communicates anger—"Why Go," by Pearl Jam. Schubert routinely shifts between major and minor—"The Trout Quintet" in A minor. The blues scale, the pentatonic scale embodies the pain of aloneness and loss—"The Sky Is Crying," by Elmore James; unresolved notes convey suspended feeling—"Blue in Green," by Miles Davis.

Music aids us in mourning our pain. It’s why we listen to it. It’s good to give over to the healing and restorative power of music. It is good to take in the communal holding of sad feeling. It is good to go inside to the depths of your own heart to meditatively process your private pain alone. My son and I now have a powerful list of sad music from Facebook. Featured recordings are "Hallelujah," by Jeff Buckley; "Prelude in E-Minor," by Chopin; and "Stars," by Nina Simone. Two of my own favorites are  "Adagio for Strings" by Barber, and "Whispering Pines," by the Band. 

But I’m sure you have your own. What are they?