Note: This post is cross-published on my “Live…In Concert” blog on the Psychology Today website.
It’s a well-known fact that people use music to manage their moods and emotions. Not only do people turn to music to enhance good moods—think DJs spinning tunes to create a party atmosphere—but but they also use it when negative emotions are prevailing. In the pre-Civil War American South, groups of African slaves sang spirituals to pass the time laboring in the fields and to encourage themselves (sometimes secretly) with ideas of freedom. And nowadays, perhaps more than ever, people can individually use music to manage negative emotions. I suspect that every day around the world, millions of teenagers deal with relationship breakups and unrequited love by escaping into their favorite sad music in the privacy of their earbuds.
Sadness is a strong emotion that most people try to avoid in their lives. So it’s interesting to consider why sad music is so popular. For some time music psychologists have studied this. Recently one of my favorite music research journals, Musicae Scientiae, devoted an entire issue to the topic of emotional regulation through music, and a good number of the studies addressed sad music specifically.
Let me quickly address some terminology: Referring to music as “sad music” or “happy music” can bother many (including myself usually) because music does not contain emotion. Emotions reside within people. Music is not emotional per se. It is, however, expressive, meaning it does possess qualities that engender emotions in people. So when I refer to “sad music” here, I’m referring, as the research does, to music that people themselves identify as sounding sad to them.
How people use sad music seems to be different than what they do with other music. Research has shown that most music listening is done while doing something else, such as morning personal grooming, doing chores around the house, exercising, and socializing with others. Listening to sad music, however, is more likely to be done as the sole activity. That is, listeners are probably not splitting their attention between sad music and, say, brushing their teeth or focusing on crossing the street safely during a run. Also whereas other listening may be done to improve mood (make it more positive) or provide a diversion from boredom, listening to sad music seems to be done for entirely different and more complex purposes.
If you’re feeling good and you want to keep the positive vibe going, you likely turn to “happy music” to help you keep feeling happy. But by and large, people do not turn to sad music to feel sad. Most people report a mix of emotions—including positive ones—when listening to sad music. One research team posited that even sadness responses to music comprise a range of emotions, including grief, melancholia, and sweet sorrow (Peltola & Eerola, 2016). The grieving process is thought to include the emotions of anger, fear, despair and guilt (Bonanno et al., 2008), all of which music can accommodate.
When listening to sad music induces grief, it often does so by triggering memories of painful past events and causing listeners to re-experience negative feelings from the past. This can lead to a particular kind of grief, namely cathartic grief. This can be seen in those moments when music prompts you to have a “good cry.” People don’t often listen to sad music with the enthusiasm or enjoyment they have with other kinds, but they may choose to do it because they anticipate some cathartic benefit. One participant in the Peltola and Eerola (2016) study said:
I really don’t like to listen to sad music, because it brings up memories….I remember just how sorrowful and desolate I was back then…and those feelings attack me again; instantly I feel just as sad, anxious and sorrowful as I did then….On the other hand, if I let myself go through those feelings, I usually feel relieved afterwards. (p. 91)
Listening to sad music appears to be very commonly done by people in the aftermath of suffering loss or significant emotional pain. In fact, for many people, music listening may be the most important personal strategy for finding consolation (Hanser et al., 2016), even more important than receiving support from friends and family or eating comfort food!
It is not clear exactly how people feel consoled from listening to music, or how they can ultimately experience positive emotions from hearing music they identify as sad. One theory has been offered by musical brain researcher David Huron (2011), who has explained that when a person is in a sad state, the body releases the hormone prolactin. The result is a consoling or a “warming” psychological effect. Perhaps music-induced sadness is a safer kind of sadness. That is, people need not always experience—or try to re-experience—a painful life event, but instead can use music to more safely enter into a simulated sadness (or as Huron calls it a “sham sadness”) in order to enjoy the physiological consoling effect.
From a mental health standpoint, it is ideal when grieving leads to coping and ultimately to acceptance. Another recent research study found some evidence that listening to music can contribute to people finding acceptance amid negative life situations (Van den Tol, et al., 2016). Music seems to allow people to express and get in touch with negative emotions that might otherwise be repressed. But psychologically speaking, there is a critical difference between healthily experiencing negative emotions and ruminating on past life events that were painful or traumatic.
It seems likely that listening to music allows people to feel the emotions they need to feel without retelling themselves a trauma story, which can lead to damaging rumination. Rumination is associated with persistent PTSD and depression. Not surprisingly, ruminators have an attraction to sad music, but for them it appears to only perpetuate feelings of dysphoria (Garrido & Schubert, 2013); it serves merely as accompaniment to painful nostalgia sessions and “brooding on the past” (Barrett et. al, 2010).
Personally, I would speculate that even greater psychological benefit may be possible from music making experiences with sad music, as compared to listening experiences. If it’s good to listen to the sad music of others, might it be even better to create your own? As I’ve written about elsewhere, music participation has been shown to have powerful social and emotional benefits, including among homeless and other marginalized individuals who commonly struggle with depression and other emotional problems (Bailey & Davidson, 2005). And I know there is at least one nationwide music therapy program, Guitars for Vets, that specifically aspires to treat PTSD through music making; a pilot research study of this program (Dillingham & Zablocki, 2011) has shown some very promising results.
Bailey, B. A., & Davidson, J. W. (2005). Effects of group singing and performance for marginalized and middle-class singers. Psychology of Music 33(3), 269-303.
Barrett, F. S., Grimm, K. J., Robins, R. W., Wildschut, T., Sedikides, C., & Janata, P. (2010). Music-evoked nostalgia: Affect, memory, and personality. Emotion, 10, 390-403.
Bonnano, G. A., Goorin, L., & Coffman, K. C. (2008). Sadness and grief. In M. Lewis, J. M. Haviland-Jones, & L. F. Barrett (Eds.), Handbook of emotions (3rd ed., 797-810). New York, NY: Guilford Press.
Dillingham, T. R., & Zablocki, C. J. (2011). Guitars for Vets: Evaluating psychological outcome of a novel music therapy. Unpublished research. Retrieved from https://www.hsrd.research.va.gov/research/abstracts.cfm?Project_ID=2141700403
Garrido, S., & Schubert, E. (2013). Adpative and maladptive attraction to negative emotions in music. Musicae Scientiae, 17(2), 147-166.
Hansler, W. E., ter Bogt, T. F. M., Van den Tol, A. J. M., Mark, R. E., & Vingerhoets, A. J. J. M. (2016). Consolation through music: A survery study. Musicae Scientiae, 20(1), 122-137.
Huron, D. (2011). The science of sad sounds. [Video File]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_pwqBAS9x3U/
Peltola, H., & Eerola, T. (2016). Fifty shades of blue: Classification of music-evoked sadness. Musicae Scientiae 20(1), 84-102.
Van den Tol, A. J. M., Edwards, J., & Heflick, N. A. (2016). Sad music as a means or acceptance-based coping. Musicae Scientiae, 20(1), 68-83.
Copyright 2017 Robert H. Woody
Source of image: TOMMY AU PHOTO on Flickr Creative Commons.