Why We Listen to Sad Music When We're Sad

December 19th 2015

"I'm so glad that my memory's remote, cause I'm doing just fine hour to hour, note to note," is a lyric from Elliott Smith's Waltz #2 (XO) that I'm only somewhat embarrassed to admit I've sung along to after many breakups.

Many of us have been there, something bad just happened, you get home, and you put on some Elliott Smith or another sad singer. One would think that listening to depressing music when you're already feeling bad would just extend the problem and make things worse, but it might not actually be a terrible idea.

Dr. Emery Schubert is an associate professor of music psychology at the University of New South Wales in Australia. He told ATTN: that when we listen to sad music "the regions of the brain responsible for generating sadness experiences are activated." 

"There are some studies that suggest reward areas of the brain are also stimulated," he continued. "But those studies test people who report enjoying the sadness of the music."

Schubert said one of the big reasons we might have a desire to listen to sad music when we're feeling down is to maintain consistency in our mood and "to avoid the shock or inappropriateness of having a sudden change in mood imposed upon us." He said we might also feel like we need to "ruminate over some issues" or have a space to ourselves where we can just let ourselves feel the most of what we're feeling.

Many have said this is a kind of catharsis, Schubert explained, where we can release the sadness at once, like a valve. He said it's interesting that people are attracted to sad music in the first place, regardless of mood.

Elliott Smith Figure 8 WallMacLeod/Wikimedia -

Quite a bit of research has been done looking at sad music. One study from 2014 explained that many people appear to listen to sad music because of a sense of kinship with the artist, who seems to be sad like they are. Feeling like you're not the only person who has felt a certain way can be comforting. It's a feeling of "They get me!"

Another study from 2013 found that people who listened to sad music actually felt less sad, but that study was done with people who weren't specifically in a sad mood. That paper talked about how people can feel rewarded when they experience sadness after having expected to experience it, which the researchers called "sweet anticipation." Much research has been done showing that the brain likes predictability and familiar feelings, which partially explains why people tend to behave or think the same way over time and often fear change. It also partially explains why we like repetitive music.

So there it is: Sad music can be rewarding for the brain, and it can help us get over sadness — or at least feel less alone in sadness. It may temporarily elongate a sad feeling, but it could be beneficial overall.

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