Mind & Body

Why Do Sad People Seek Out Sad Music?

You'd think a song like "Happy" would be the first thing you'd turn to when you're down in the dumps — something upbeat and motivating so that you can shake yourself free from your sadness. Yet very often, people turn to sad music when they're feeling down. But why? Well, from what we understand from recent studies, the answer depends on whether you're clinically depressed or just garden-variety sad.

Sad State of Affairs

For people who have experienced a recent breakup or perhaps the death of someone close, but aren't suffering from chronic depression, a sad song can provide a degree of catharsis — an emotional release that's safe, normal, and may even help express feelings that they might have trouble expressing on their own. According to Sandra Garrido, a researcher who explored this topic in an article on The Conversation, some enjoy the emotional journey that comes about from a sad song, while others may use a sad song in order to work through their own feelings and make sense of their situation. Through this music, people who don't suffer from clinical depression will likely find that the music can provide them with an emotional release that will let them have a good cry and move on with their lives.

How effective this is, though, will likely depend upon that person's level of empathy. In a 2016 study published in Frontiers in Psychology, 102 people were tested by listening to unfamiliar sad music — a piece they wouldn't have any existing personal connections to — and taking a test to determine their interpersonal reactivity index, or how much they cared about other people. Ultimately, the researchers found that those who had greater empathy as determined by the index also had a greater ability to be moved by the sad song on an emotional level.

There's another concept that may also help explain some people's love for sad music: benign masochism. That's the tendency for people to enjoy the experience of something that would otherwise be unpleasant — but because they know it's safe, they can enjoy the thrill. This principle may provide an explanation for why people love scary movies, roller coasters, and, according to research, sad music. While it may be temporarily upsetting, they know it's a safe journey to take.

From Sad to Worse

That being said, it may not always be safe to listen to sad music, specifically if you've been diagnosed with clinical depression. As Garrido explains, depression doesn't always allow for that step where you move on with your life. Instead, people with depression may tend to ruminate, getting stuck in that sad feeling and diving ever deeper into it.

So instead of the catharsis that non-depressed people may experience, people with depression may not have any kind of breakthrough when listening to sad music. Instead, they listen to it — and keep listening to it — because they're ruminating on their own sadness, which makes them sadder. It can be a hard cycle to break, and it's especially of concern for those at risk of suicide.

Not everyone agrees, however. In fact, some are offended by the idea that depressed people purposefully make themselves more depressed. And when researchers behind a 2019 study actually asked people with depression why they chose to listen to sad music, they found that their reasons had nothing to do with ruminating on negative feelings. Instead, depressed people were drawn to the music because they felt it was calming, soothing, or relaxing — and what's more, they actually reported feeling happier after listening to it.

So, the reason why people are drawn to sad music tends to vary. It could be benign masochism or a way to work through emotions. And while people with depression may use it to ruminate on their sadness, they also might be drawn to it in moments of despair for the same reasons anyone is. In the end, the best advice may be to pay attention to your own feelings. If sad music makes you sadder, you may want to listen to less of it. If it helps you work through your sadness, crank up the volume and have a good cry. We won't judge.

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For more ways music affects your brain, check out "Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, Revised and Expanded Edition" by Oliver Sacks. The audiobook is free with an Audible trial. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Brian VanHooker May 21, 2019

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