When a sad song comes on the radio, and the words seem to speak to your soul, do you quickly turn it off? Or do you turn it up, listen closely, and let the tears fall?
For me, the song is ‘Say Something’, sung by A Great Big World and Christina Aguilera. The first time I heard it, I had to grab a box of kleenex because the lyrics spoke my thoughts:
‘I’m sorry that I couldn’t get to you…It was over my head…’
My husband had recently passed away, and this song caused me to start sobbing like I’d lost him all over again.
‘And I’m saying goodbye…’
It killed me.
For you, maybe it’s ‘your song’, the song that was supposed to symbolize your undying love for each other, and now sends you reaching for the kleenex. Maybe it’s about a break-up, or a heart-break, and the words or melody seem to pierce your heart through because the situation sounds so familiar.
Why do we do it to ourselves? Why do we listen to sad music that breaks our hearts? Is it healthy?
The answer depends on you.
One study, published in the Journal of Consumer Research, found that people tend to prefer sad music when they are experiencing a deep interpersonal loss, like the end of a relationship.
The authors of that study suggested that sad music provides a substitute for the lost relationship. They compared it to the preference most people have for an empathic friend — someone who truly understands what you’re going through.
Another study, conducted by Liila Taruffi and Stefan Koelsch to find out why people seek and appreciate sadness in music, found that listening to sad music can be a means of venting, and even catharsis, helping us release strong or repressed emotions.
“Our results reveal that sad music evokes not only sadness, but also a wide range of complex and partially positive emotions, such as nostalgia, peacefulness, tenderness, transcendence, and wonder.” – The Paradox of Music-Evoked Sadness: An Online Survey
These studies tell us that sad music can help us process our fears, our grief, sadness, and resentment.
But there could be a hidden danger in submersing ourselves in sad music, if we suffer from depression.
The article Sad music and depression: does it help? , written by Sandra Garrido, says “People with tendencies to clinical depression respond to music differently. Rumination, the tendency to become stuck in patterns of negative thinking, often goes hand-in-hand with depression. When people are ruminators, listening to sad music seems to perpetuate these cycles of negative thinking.”
So, what kind of person are you? Do you get stuck in a cycle of negative thoughts, thinking things like ‘love never works out for me’, or ‘I’ll never have a love like that again.’ If so, listening to music that makes you feel worse could be dangerous.
(Your mental health is extremely important, especially if you are a mom like me, trying to stay healthy and take care of your kids. If you think you might have depression, please seek advice from a healthcare provider.)
But if you are grieving and healing from a loss, or a heart-break of any sort, listening to a sad song can be a healthy part of your mourning process.
So what will you do the next time ‘that song’ comes on your playlist, or the radio? Skip it? Turn it off?
Every now and then, I think I will stop and listen, cry, and heal a little bit more.
Citation: Taruffi L, Koelsch S (2014) The Paradox of Music-Evoked Sadness: An Online Survey. PLoS ONE 9(10): e110490. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0110490