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Sad Music is Depressing; It’s Also Healthy and Good For Your Mind

Researchers in Berlin have found listening to downbeat music brings out positive emotions.

Dan Wilkinson

We all enjoy a bit of sad music every once in a while. Whether it’s sinking into the melancholic soundscapes of ambient artists like Grouper, dampening pillows with snot and the sound of Bright Eyes after feeling forever alone for the fifteenth time that week, or just pressing repeat on that one song because you know it will make the tears flow faster, it doesn’t matter. Sad music counteracts pop songs about butts and comforts listeners in times of need.

A recent study sought to investigate why people are so drawn to sad music. On first glance, and based on my own experiences, it seemed like people listen to sad music because, y’know, we’re all humans and sometimes we wallow in our own misery. But the survey, which was conducted by University of Berlin students Lilla Taruffi and Stefan Koelsch, found nostalgia was the most recurring emotion when listening to sad music - basically meaning we listen to downbeat songs to remember happier times, and to feel some semblance of the past. The survey also found that listening to a mellow song is better for the brain, especially when dealing with complex emotions, compared to blasting something upbeat.

I talked to Lilla about memory and music, finding comfort in sadness and whether happy music is best for the past or the future?

Noisey: So, let's get it out the way, why did you decide to study unhappy music?
Lilla: I came across the idea that we can enjoy listening to sad music while completing an undergraduate course in Philosophy. From there, I developed an interest in it based on personal experience, and started to look at my use of music on an everyday basis.

But why did you choose to focus on music in particular?
Music is such a strong medium of emotional experience. Scientists are trying to understand the psychological and neural mechanism underlying music, but it still remains a mystery. At least in terms of the richness and depth you can get from listening to it.

How did you go about getting the research? Did you just lock a bunch of people into a room and play them Neutral Milk Hotel or something?
We conducted a large online survey on the topic of sad music. Given that sadness is an emotion we normally try to avoid in everyday life, we wanted to find out why people continue to engage with sad music. The survey featured several questions which were related to listening habits, emotions evoked by sad music, pleasurable aspects of sad music and personality questionnaires. We collected answers from 772 people from all over the world. The age range was 16-78, 64% female, and the majority of participants were non-musicians.

Did you quiz them on their music tastes too?
Yes. They were asked to mention one of their favourite pieces of sad music.

What artists tended to crop up most?
The song with lyrics that got the most nominations was “Hurt” by Johnny Cash and Radiohead were mentioned several times with "Exit Music (For a Film)" or "Street Spirit (Fade Out)". Then from the classical pieces, "Moonlight Sonata" from Beethoven got the highest number of nominations. Also, "Adagio for Strings Op.11" by Samuel Barber and "Adagio in G minor" by Tomaso Albinoni, and also "Gymnopédie No. 1" by Erik Satie. Many Asian participants reported the classical song "Moon reflected in the second spring" by Ah Bing. Another popular one was "Someone Like You" from Adele and "The Heart Asks Pleasure First" (The Piano OST) from Michael Nyman.

What kind of emotions did people experience when listening to the songs?
Nostalgia was the most frequently reported emotion. The results also revealed that sad music, besides sadness, also brings up a wide range of positive emotions, such as peacefulness, tenderness, transcendence, and wonder. I guess that explains why sad music can be appealing and pleasurable for many people.

What do you think about nostalgia cropping up so much? Does it say something about the way we treat music?
Nostalgia relates to memory. So, to me, this finding points out that many people evoke memories of past events when listening to sad music. This was also confirmed by the fact many participants reported they would use sad music to think about the past. So there is a strong link between nostalgia, memory and sad music.

What about happy music? If nostalgia relates to sad music, do people think of the future when listening to something more upbeat?
We looked at the use of happy music and we asked another sample of different people to tell us when and why they engage with it. The results showed that participants are more likely to engage with happy music when with friends or at social occasions, to experience pleasure and enjoyment, and to maintain a positive mood or emotional state. However, by looking at the results I tend to believe that sad music, compared to happy music, is generally used for introspective functions (regardless of whether it relates with past or future). But that’s just my suggestion.

What are the differences between happy and sad music and how they relate back to our own thoughts?
I would say that sad music covers a range of various “inner” functions (directed to one’s own conscious thoughts and feelings) linked to solitary settings, whereas happy music mainly covers “outer” functions (directed to the sociocultural network to which one belongs) linked to social settings. Sadness and happiness though are complementary aspects of our life.

Finally. What's your favourite sad song?
I have many but the first that comes to mind now is Radiohead’s “Sail to the Moon”.

What emotion does it evoke?
I would say very deep feelings. Almost transcendence.

What was your final conclusion to the project?
The project highlights the potential of sad music for regulating negative moods, emotions, and for providing consolation. It also clarifies the reasons why people seek out sad music, and it provides new clues about the way sadness and pleasure might relate to each other. For example, by listening to sad music we can experience sadness and savour its aspects in a safe environment because it is not connected to a negative real life event.

That makes sense. Thanks Lilla!

Follow Dan on Twitter: @KeenDang