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Why We Can't Stop Listening to Sad Songs

Plus: A Top 5 of melancholy hits.

Last Friday, British pop sensation Adele debuted her new music video for her latest song, "Hello." The track is quintessentially Adele, which means it has collectively brought the Twitterverse (and even Kate Hudson) to uncontrollable tears. Her voice is simultaneously haunting and heartbreaking. If you haven't heard it yet, here it is:

Adele's musical career is built on broken-hearted ballads. But no one actually enjoys being sad and miserable. So why do we love songs about sadness and misery? Look at the musical hits of the last several decades: There's no shortage of songs about breakups, heartache, loneliness, and regret. Do melancholy melodies bring out the masochist in all of us?

Maybe there is a scientific explanation for this behavior.

In a recent study at Tokyo University of the Arts, researchers asked 44 volunteers (musicians and non-musicians) to listen to both sad and happy music and then “rate their perception toward the music and their own emotional state.”

Nickolai Kashirin/ Flickr Creative Coommons
Source: Nickolai Kashirin/ Flickr Creative Coommons

The results suggested that sad music elicited “contradictory emotions” because participants found the sad music “to be more tragic, less romantic and less blithe than they felt themselves while listening to it.”

In other words, the sad music they listened to was sadder than their own lives, which in turn made participants feel not so sad about their own state.

It's not dissimilar to how we may feel pangs of guilt and gratitude when we see people less fortunate than us on TV or on the street. Inevitably, I think to myself, I have so much more than so many people; why am I complaining about runny eggs?

Moreover, even though participants found sad music to be less romantic, the researchers found:

“Music that is perceived as sad actually induces romantic emotion as well as sad emotion. And people, regardless of their musical training, experience this ambivalent emotion to listen to the sad music.”

This reasoning makes sense. After all, would we really continue to listen sad music if it only made us feel terrible? On some level, it must make us feel good, too.

Researchers also said that sadness experienced through music or art can be pleasant, possibly because it “does not pose an actual threat to our safety”—unlike in real life, where emotions can and often do directly shake us (both physically and emotionally).

In fact, the researchers added, “If we suffer from unpleasant emotion evoked through daily life, sad music might be helpful to alleviate negative emotion.”

Want to stop being sad right now? Listen to my five favorite sad songs below:

5. Adele, "Someone Like You"

There's something about Adele's music that cuts like a blade into the heart. Could it be her weighty, mezzo soprano voice? Her painful, and often autobiographical lyrics that are just so easy to relate to? It's probably both.

4. Sigur Rós, "Starálfur"

I find myself tearing up nearly every time I hear this song, even though I don't understand one word of the lyrics.

3. Tobias Jesso Jr., "How Could You, Babe"

It probably doesn't come as a surprise that one of Adele's favorite new artists (and co-songwriters) is Tobias Jesso Jr. The piano-playing crooner debuted his first album, Goon, earlier this year, and "How Could You, Babe," if you can't tell by the title, is about the dissolution of a relationship. (To be honest, all of Jesso's songs could be on this list. They are all haunting, beautiful—and very, very melancholy.)

2. Travis, "Why Does it Always Rain on Me?"

As someone who has never enjoyed rainy days, this song has been my sad anthem for the better part of a decade.

1. Jeff Buckley, "Hallelujah"

"Hallelujah" is included in many "saddest song" lists, including mine. This bittersweet melody is played at both weddings and funerals—an anomaly for the majority of sad songs.

Songwriter Leonard Cohen describes his masterpiece:

"This world is full of conflicts and full of things that cannot be reconciled. But there are moments when we can...reconcile and embrace the whole mess, and that's what I mean by 'Hallelujah.'"

What are your favorite sad songs?

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Frontiers. "Why do we enjoy listening to sad music?." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 11 July 2013. <;.

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