Monday, 15 July 2013

Why do people like listening to sad music when they're feeling down?

We spend most of our lives trying to be happy. And yet when we're feeling sad we put on a tear-jerker tune and wallow in our misery. Why?

It's an aspect of the psychology of music that's been surprisingly overlooked. Now Annemieke Van den Tol and Jane Edwards at the University of Limerick have surveyed 65 adults online about a time they'd had a negative experience and then chose to listen to a sad piece of music. Most of the participants were Irish but there were also respondents in the Netherlands, USA, Germany and Spain. The age range was 18 to 66 (average 26) with 30 women.

Because this issue has hardly been investigated before, the researchers opted for a qualitative approach. They analysed the participants' descriptions and looked for recurring themes in why they chose to play sad music.

Van den Tol and Edwards felt that the answers fell into two main overarching themes - the strategies people adopted in selecting sad music, and the functions served by the music.

Among the strategies was the desire for connection. People wanted to listen to music that matched their current mood. "I didn't want music that would cheer me up, I wanted to stay with those emotions for a while until I was ready to let go of them," said one 25-year-old female participant. This notion fits with past research showing that people's current mood is often a better predictor of their choice of music than their desired mood.

Another strategy was using sad music as a memory trigger - to experience nostalgia or feel closer to a person who was missed. "I selected the music because I know he [the person who had died] had liked the music too," said a 48-year-old female.

Other participants described selecting sad music for its aesthetic value. In this case people weren't choosing the music to enhance their own sadness or to reminisce, they simply thought the music was beautiful and high quality.

The final strategy related to the message communicated by the sad song. These were often tracks that were sad but conveyed a hopeful message. "The Waterboys song: to me it seems to channel my emotions, and the lyrics give me a sense of hope," said a 31-year-old male.

The self-regulatory functions of listening to sad music were closely related to the above strategies. So, for example, participants spoke of the re-experiencing of their affect. "I was at home, feeling sorry for myself ... though I could not cry," said a 24-year-old female. "So I decided to play some sad music in order to cry a little and then feel relieved and move on." A 21-year-old lady put it like this: "the music would encourage me to feel the pain as it were, plus allow me to have a good cry for myself ... It probably did not make me feel better at the time, but may have helped me cope overall."

Another function the researchers labelled cognitive. This included a sense induced by sad music of "common humanity" - seeing one's own feelings as part of the larger human experience rather than lonely and isolating.

There were also participants who saw sad music as a friend, as if it were empathising with their suffering. "I felt befriended by the music," said a 33-year-old woman. "By this I mean that if you were to pretend the music/lyrics was a real person, with its lyrics of understanding friendship, comfort and confidence, then surely the song would be your best friend."

Other identified functions were mood enhancementretrieving memories, and social, which had to do with feel closer to loved ones. Sad music also acted as a distraction. In this case, participants described how sad music allowed them to escape silence. Jolly music was unthinkable, but a mournful tune broke the silence and created a distance from one's own negative emotions.

Van den Tol and Edwards said their survey provided the perfect springboard for more research into this topic. Future research "could examine the actual effects of music listening in a real life setting," they suggested, "and how the achievement of self-regulatory goals relate to changes in affect, cognition, and behaviour."

Do you like listening to sad music when you're feeling down? What effect does the music have on you?


AJM Van den Tol, and J Edwards (2013). Exploring a rationale for choosing to listen to sad music when feeling sad. Psychology of Music DOI: 10.1177/0305735611430433

--Further reading--
-By coincidence, another study into sad music is currently receiving a lot of attention in the media.
-Also, from the Digest archive: Pop music is getting sadder and more emotionally ambiguous

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.


Anonymous said...

Nice write-up. When I covered this study on my blog I came across three theories which go beyond the introspective reports of respondents: the safe distance theory, the shared pain theory, the prolactin theory. Especially Huron's prolactin theory offers empirical predictions about the effects of sad music on the body which may offer a clue as to why sad music is sought.

More here:

Anonymous said...

I do believe that people listen to sad songs when they are feeling sad in order to help them remember, relate to, or reminisce about a past experience that they have had. Listening to a certain song may help the person tap into their episodic memory, which helps them remember that specific experience. For example, whenever I listen to one of the songs that was played at my cousins funeral, I always think of him and the good memories we had together. Yes, some sadness comes with listening to that song and having those feelings and thoughts come back to you.. but in the end, there is usually a feeling of contentment, more than a feeling of sadness.

Anonymous said...


I feel that people listen to sad music when they're down because, they feel more better knowing someone has also gone through what they have (if that song is relatable). Also, I feel as though the melodies, lyrics, sound, etc can help cope with their emotions . I would consider that to fall under, emotion- focused coping, in my opinion.

Anonymous said...

It is because you humans bathe in the sorrow discomfort and pain of anything around you.
You're all sadists and suicidal, Bye.

Anonymous said...

because music have power to keep or move our state of mind to a desired one, witch allows us to do many things related to subject of witch made u wan to alter your mind in the first place, may it be workout motivation, to feel sad or what ever...

Amor said...

I think sad music is like a friend when you have no friends. The lyrics help to express the sad feelings and the notes are like the words of comfort.

willimek said...

Why do Minor Keys sound sad?
If you want to answer the question, why minor chords sound sad, there is the problem, that some minor chords don't sound sad. The solution is the Theory of Musical Equilibration. It says, that music is not able to transmit emotions directly. Music can just convey processes of will, but the music listener fills this processes of will with emotions. Similar, when you watch a dramatic movie in television, the movie cannot transmit emotions directly, but processes of will. The spectator perceives the processes of will dyed with emotions - identifying with the protagonist. When you listen music you identify too, but with an anonymous will now.
If you perceive a major chord, you normally identify with the will "Yes, I want to...". If you perceive a minor chord, you identify normally with the will "I don't want any more...". If you play the minor chord softly, you connect the will "I don't want any more..." with a feeling of sadness. If you play the minor chord loudly, you connect the same will with a feeling of rage. You distinguish in the same way as you would distinguish, if someone would say the words "I don't want anymore..." the first time softly and the second time loudly.
This operations of will in the music were unknown until the Theory of Musical Equilibration discovered them. And therefore many previous researches in psychology of music failed. If you want more information about music and emotions and get the answer, why music touches us emotionally, you can download the essay "Music and Emotions - Research on the Theory of Musical Equilibration" for free. You can get it on the link:
Enjoy reading
Bernd Willimek

Anonymous said...

I had a loved one recently die and I cannot feel satisfied unless I listen to sad music that reflects on him. I realize the answer is because when I don't, I feel so artificial and feel like I'm trying to cover up my emotions in a way and put on a mask that makes it appear like I'm over it. The music helps me picture the memories and situation and connects me with the lost friend. And although I stream with tears and people say it's just hurting me more, it's the only way I can cope.
Personally, if anybody tries to cheer me up or I hear a happy, upbeat song during my mourning I get very, very angry.

Anonymous said...

I totally agree with you

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