“When all hope is gone, sad songs say so much.”
It turns out that Elton John knew what he was talking about: Several studies have found that many people do choose to listen to sad music when they’re feeling down—and the desire to listen to sad music (as opposed to music with a different expressive character) is strongest directly after the onset of a negative mood.
Researchers Annemieke Van den Tol and Jane Edwards were curious about why this should be so—what do people hope to achieve by listening to sad music when they’re already feeling down? They found that we choose sad music for one of four reasons:
- Connection. Listeners identify with the emotions expressed by the music or the meaning of the lyrics. They seek this kind of identification when they want to re-experience those same emotions. Some listeners in Van den Tol and Edwards' studies found that identifying with their feelings in this way seemed to help sort them out. In other words, they sought the “cognitive reappraisal” of their emotions.
- Message. Another way listeners achieve the goal of cognitive reappraisal is through seeking out music with a message they wanted to relate to. Remember the 1978 hit “I Will Survive?" I would venture that some of its popularity was due to its strongly positive first-person message.
- High aesthetic value. Before sad listeners can reassess their situation, they use music as a distraction. In this scenario, the music of high aesthetic value—music believed to be particularly good or beautiful—is the most sought out. Van den Tol and Edwards hypothesize that the more beautiful the music, the easier it is for listeners to concentrate on it, thereby achieving the goal of being distracted from their present situation. But while music can be an effective distraction, the researchers warn that (as with nearly everything) there can be too much of a good thing. Excessive use of sad music in this way can be a sign of avoidance, and even an indication of poor psychological adjustment.
- Memory trigger. Finally, listeners used sad music as a memory trigger, when it had an association with past events or people, and they wanted to retrieve those memories. Interestingly, when listeners chose music for this purpose, it seemed not to enhance their moods, as music did in other situations.
And what happens when the fog lifts and a bad mood passes? Once our initial feelings of sadness have abated, we are more likely to shift to uplifting music.
Van den Tol, A. J. M., & Edwards, J. (2014) Listening to sad music in adverse situations: How music selection strategies relate to self-regulatory goals, listening effects, and mood enhancement. Psychology of Music. Published online 29 January 2014.
Van den Tol, A. J. M., & Edwards, J. (2011) A rationale for sad music listening after experiencing adverse emotional events. Psychology of Music, 41(4), 440–465. doi:10.1177/0305735611430433