Sad Music Can Actually Make Us Feel Better, Says Research

Research by music psychologist Glenn Schellenberg, University of Toronto, and sociologist Christian von Scheve over a decade ago revealed that we actually like sad music, or happy-to-be-sad songs (Alex Spiegel, NPR).

More recent research results from Liila Taruffi and Stefan Koelsch reinforces the sentiment that listening to sad songs can often make you feel better (Sarah Griffiths, Daily Mail). Today.com lists four rewards Taruffi and Koelsch describe:

1. The biggest reward turned out to be that sad songs allow you to feel sadness without any of its ‘real-life implications.’ In other words, you can safely explore what it’s like to be a little blue without experiencing the intense grief of mourning a loved one, for example.

2. ‘Emotion regulation’ was another important reward. Many respondents said that when they were in a bad mood, experiencing sadness through music made them feel better afterwards and provided an emotional boost. That may be because the songs help them to express and release their emotions, Taruffi noted…

3. The reward of ‘imagination’ allowed listeners to feel as though they could express themselves as richly as the mournful music.

4. The ’empathy’ reward made the listener feel good by allowing him to share the sadness of another human being through the song.

Why do we turn to sad music? Mainly, say the researchers, because we’re already in distress. Usually over a lost relationship or other interpersonal problems, including “feeling lonely, homesick, or missing someone.” Also in order to remember the past.

So, Adam Brent Houghtaling was definitely on to something when he wrote This Will End in Tears: The Miserabilist Guide to Music, an encyclopedic guide to songs on topics ranging, says Kirkus Reviews, from “heartbreak to death to apocalyptic doom and all the many subcategories in between (divorce, depression, suicidal despair, murder, etc.).”

As the author told PBS:

Emotionally charged music in general tends to affect us in rather profound ways, very similar to sex and drugs and chocolate cake. It kind of lights up our reward sensor, and sad music is very emotionally charged…You’re not listening to it when you’re at the beach with your friends or during a dinner party. You’re usually alone, and I think that creates something really personal. Another thing that I’ve been thinking about is how you really are able to put yourself into sad music specifically, into narrative forms of sad music, just like you’re able to root yourself into a novel. You kind of fill in the gaps with your own heartbreaks and your own miseries, and I think that makes the connection really personal.

What are some sad songs from your own playlist?  If you don’t already have your faves, here are some to consider:

  • Nothing Compares 2 U, Sinead O’Connor
  • Dance With My Father, Luther Vandross
  • Whenever You Call, Mariah Carey featuring Brian McKnight
  • Tears in Heaven, Eric Clapton
  • For a Dancer, Jackson Browne
  • Landslide, Fleetwood Mac
  • Cat’s in the Cradle, Harry Chapin
  • Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word, Elton John
  • How Can You Mend a Broken Heart, Al Green
  • Mad World, Gary Jules
  • At Last, Etta James
  • They Won’t Go When I Go, Stevie Wonder
  • It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday, Boyz II Men
  • My Immortal, Evanescence
  • Un-Break My Heart, Toni Braxton
  • You Don’t Bring Me Flowers, Barbra Streisand/Neil Diamond
  • I Can’t Make You Love Me, Bonnie Raitt
  • Stay, Rihanna featuring Mikki Ekko
  • Keep Me in Your Heart, Warren Zevon

4 thoughts on “Sad Music Can Actually Make Us Feel Better, Says Research

  1. I also wonder if it’s because some of the sad music also brings us back to a time in our life when we were working through sadness, or it might even be associated with a time when something good was happening. My favorites for sad songs: O-O-H Child (Five Stairsteps); How Deep is Your Love (Bee Gees); Fallen (Sarah McLachlan); Why (Annie Lennox); This Year’s Love (David Gray); Merchant of Love (Joan Armatrading); Break Your Heart (Natalie Merchant); If I Could Be Where You Are (Enya); Both Sides Now (Joni Mitchell); The Mummers’ Dance (Loreena McKenitt). Well, with this overcast gloomy day, I think I’ll play me some of these sad songs!

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