Should We Beware of Sad Songs?

We can harness the emotional power of sad music to energize personal growth.

Posted Sep 23, 2015

Krystine I. Batcho
Source: Krystine I. Batcho

The popular belief that a song can be so sad that it can trigger suicide has a long history.  Written in 1933 by Hungarian composer Seress and lyricist Janvor, Gloomy Sunday tells of the despondency of a grieving lover:  “my Sundays have been forever sad, tears my only drink.  This last Sunday, . . . flowers and a coffin under the blossoming trees, it will be my last journey.”  The song was believed to have spurred so many acts of despair that it became known as the “Hungarian suicide song,” and was removed from playlists by many radio stations.  In 1936, The New York Times reported the suicide of a 13-year-old boy, found with the lyrics of Gloomy Sunday in his pocket.  The Times also reported the suicide of a college senior who had told fellow students he was going to memorize the Gloomy Sunday lyrics and end his life on a gloomy Sunday.  Seress ended his own life shortly after his 69th birthday.  In the later years of his career he had complained that the success of the song had increased his unhappiness, because he knew he would never be able to write another song its equal.

Suicidal connections to lyrics are not limited to a particular culture or musical genre.  In 2008, a British farm worker ended his life, leaving references to the lyrics of the song Epiphany by American rock band Staind.  On May 4, 2000, Mr. Barnes found his 17-year old son Greg hanging in their garage two weeks after the first anniversary of the Columbine High School shootings.  A CD repeatedly played Adam’s Song by Blink 182:  “I never thought I’d die alone.  I laughed the loudest who’d have known?”  With no note left to explain, those who knew and loved Greg could only wonder why a popular basketball player would take his life.  Some scrutinized the song lyrics for clues:  “I’m too depressed to go on.”  Others noted that Greg had escaped the Columbine shootings without injury, but had witnessed coach Dave Sanders die, had lost his close friend Matthew Kechter, and had recently broken up with his girlfriend.  The local County Sheriff John Stone disclosed that 12 years earlier, his 15-year-old son, an accomplished athlete, was listening to a similar song when he had taken his life by hanging.

Isolated cases do not constitute evidence for a relationship between music and depression so serious it can result in suicide.  However, the belief in a connection persists, in part because a hypothesized causal link cannot and should not be tested experimentally.  More importantly, the emotional power of music has been assumed to be self-evident.  While many theorists have agreed that listening to sad music makes people sad, others have argued that few people claim that listening to sad music makes them sad, and that those who report being saddened are mistaken.

Paradoxically, people can be attracted to music that evokes sadness.  Scrutiny of Billboard’s list of No. 1 songs from 1958 through 2013 reveals the dominant popularity of upbeat, happy music over sad, depressing songs.   However, some sad songs topped the chart for their genre, such as Letter Edged in Black, He Stopped Loving Her Today, and Concrete Angel

Why people like music that makes them sad is complex.  Although there is no absolute consensus, research has shed light on why people can be attracted to sad songs.

1.  A beautiful melancholy song can be appreciated for its aesthetic value as a vehicle for artistic expression.  One theory posits that when negative emotions are activated in an aesthetic context, a dissociation mechanism is triggered that inhibits the associated displeasure reactions.

2.  The listener recognizes the distinction between his or her own reality and that portrayed in the song.  This differentiation allows the listener to experience the negative emotion in a safe venue without being invested in or committed to any consequence or behavioral response.

3.  Releasing his or her own sadness in a clearly articulated and aesthetically elegant expression, a listener can hope for cathartic relief.

4.  By encouraging reflection, sad songs can help a listener use positive reappraisal to problem solve and enhance personal growth.

5.  Sad songs can distract a listener from his or her actual problems or help put those difficulties in perspective.  Comparing one’s manageable hassles to a song’s more traumatic content can remind the listener that others have faced far worse.

6.  Along with sadness, melancholy music can elicit positive emotions such as compassion and empathy.  Such soft emotions can prompt a listener to prosocial, altruistic action that brings its own intrinsic satisfaction.

The greater popularity of happy music raises instructive questions such as:  Who is likely to be attracted to sad music?  When are people attracted to sad music?  Some people are more attracted to sad songs, and people find sad songs more appealing when they are in certain moods or in particular circumstances.  Research suggests that people with a propensity to absorption were more likely to enjoy negative emotions in music.  Absorption is the ability to become deeply engaged in an experience with a narrowing of attention that lessens awareness of distracting internal states or external conditions.  Absorption in music enables a listener to identify with the vocalist and the message expressed by the lyrics.

Absorption is related to the ability to empathize with the vocalist and to experience vicariously the feelings expressed in a song.  Some theorists suggest that listeners also may project their own emotions onto the music.   Research has shown that people who possess greater musical empathy are more likely to enjoy listening to music that makes them feel sadness or grief.  Consistent with the consensus that music can evoke powerful emotional responses, listening to a sad song can make most people sad, even people who expect that sad music will make them feel better by providing catharsis, the opportunity to work through sadness, or the knowledge that other people have also had such feelings.

For most people, the sadness evoked by music is transient and often accompanied by other uplifting or inspirational benefits.  There is less research, however, on the impact of sad music on people who are already depressed or are going through an especially painful time.  People who are sad are more likely to be attracted to sad music.   Sometimes they hope to lessen their emotional burden by sharing it with others who have been through similar experiences.  While it can’t erase the sorrow or grief, a sad song can help a listener feel less alone.  It can lend meaning to an otherwise meaningless misfortune or loss. 

There is inadequate research, though, on the long-term impact of sad music on mood.  Some who are depressed can become trapped in a downhill spiral of mood dependency.  Attracted to sad music, a depressed person can become even sadder and caught in a loop of seeking out the musical sadness they begin to feel at home with.  People who lack social support or healthy coping strategies have fewer avenues for interrupting the cycle of sadness.  The risk of habitual seeking of music that reinforces sadness is especially troublesome for people prone to rumination, the tendency to recurrent thinking about their engagement in past adversities, losses, or injustices.  People who tend to ruminate often reevaluate their actions, especially in situations they deem embarrassing, disappointing, or involving argument or conflict.  Research suggests that people with a high propensity to rumination are more sensitive to the sadness evoked by melancholy music.

Those who are suffering chronic depression or struggling through grief or trauma can lessen the risk of deepening sadness by balancing the emotionality and sequence of their playlists.  Rather than focusing solely on the negative, reflecting on the meaning in adversity and pursuing personal growth through prosocial outreach can protect a sense of hope.  Remaining engaged within a social community is important to avoid loneliness.  Although music can be appreciated as a solitary pleasure, sharing musical experience with others enhances its positive impact.  Extending the musical experience beyond the presence of friends and relatives is easier than ever now with access to social media.  Rather than allowing the music to control us, we can harness the emotional power of sad music to energize healing, personal growth, and positive social engagement.

Further reading

Batcho, K. I.  (2015).  Why do we love sad songs?  Psychology Today.

Batcho, K. I.  (2012).  Life’s refrain:  The power of nostalgic songs.  Psychology Today

Garrido, S., & Schubert, E.  (2011).  Individual differences in the enjoyment of negative emotion in music:  A literature review and experiment.  Music Perception, 28, 279-295.

Garrido, S. & Schubert, E.  (2015).  Moody melodies:  Do they cheer us up?  A study of the effect of sad music on mood.  Psychology of Music, 43, 244-261.

Garrido, S., & Schubert, E.  (2015).  Music and people with tendencies to depression. Music Perception, 32, 313-321.

Stack, S., Krysinska, K., & Lester, D.  (2007-2008).  Gloomy Sunday:  Did the “Hungarian suicide song” really create a suicide epidemic?  Omega, 56, 349-358.

Trapnell, P. D., & Campbell, J. D.  (1999).  Private self-consciousness and the five-factor model of personality:  Distinguishing rumination from reflection.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 76, 284-304.