Why everyone loves sad songs

Have you ever had a certain set of songs that always made you feel better when you were sad or angry?  Songs that fit the mood you’re in so perfectly they take you right out of it?  In recent studies published in both the journal Psychology of Music and Frontiers of Psychology, researchers have begun looking into why listening to sad music can improve a person’s mood.

Imagine this: summer is drawing to a close and the start of school is inching nearer and nearer.  In preparation for the countless early mornings you will have to endure in the coming months, you scroll through your iTunes library, searching for the best, peppiest song that will surely put you in a great mood first thing in the morning.  This all seems like a grand idea, until about that third morning when you just want to hurl your phone at the nearest wall to help Iggy find her inside voice. I mean, doesn’t she respect the dreary monotony of waking up at 6:30 in the morning?  Speaking for myself, when I’m tired or in a bad mood, the last thing I want to listen to is a bright, cheerful song.  Multiple studies have shown that I am not the only one with a selective music range when I’m feeling down.

During a study published in the journal Psychology of Music, researchers asked their 220 participants to reflect on past events in their lives they considered sad and what music they listened to in order to cope with the memories.

In the article highlighting the study “Listening to sad music in adverse situations: How music selection strategies relate to self-regulatory goals, listening effects, and mood enhancement,” the researchers Dr. Annemieke J.M. Van de Tol and Dr. Jane Edwards shared their results.  They concluded that their participants were much more likely to feel better after listening to “sad” music if they first reflected on why they were sad in the first place.  The researchers continued that if the participant was to choose the song with the intention of triggering a bad memory, his or her mood would quickly decline.  Simply put, choosing a sad song to look back on a sad memory is going to turn into a real bummer quickly, while listening to a sad song to distract from something you’re already thinking about can actually improve your mood.

The one thing this study is missing in my opinion is the simple fact that each person’s past is different, and the way we each deal with our sadness differs as well.  It also fails to take into account the differing degrees of sadness the memories of the participants triggered. If one person is reflecting on the loss of a loved one, it will prompt a much more powerful emotional response than another participant remembering that one time they failed a test in high school.  I believe that the differing degrees of sad memories will trigger different responses in the participants and how they are affected by the sad music.

These flaws aside, I do agree with the conclusion of the study: that sad music can improve a person’s mood.  I think it all depends on the frame of mind you have while listening to sad music.  As was determined in the study, if you decide to listen to sad music to help distract from something that has you down in that moment, it will most likely improve your mood.  We enjoy listening to sad music as a distraction because it emphasizes the fact that we are not alone.  It may not heal us, or take away the sorrow, but it offers a temporary distraction.  There’s something about listening to someone pour his or her heart out over a minor progression that can be soothing.  And when the bridge comes and the artist brings the uplifting twist, you feel elated too, as if the artist is taking you with him or her, carrying you past your problems, even if only temporarily.

Listening to sad music to improve your mood has been demonstrated to be a reasonable way to deal with temporary sadness.  Sad music helps us feel like we’re not alone, that at least one other person dealt with the sadness you’re feeling and came out the other side.

So if you only take one thing away from this, it is that you should try to be more careful next time you’re choosing your early morning wake-up song.