"What came first — the music or the misery?" That sad-sack line from High Fidelity more or less sums up most people's relationship with sad music: necessary and potentially indulgent. But as it turns out, listening to sad music isn't just an excuse to partake in a pity party — it's scientifically proven to be healthy.
A recent study found that neither happy nor sad music amplifies your emotions. Sad music, however, was linked to bringing down positivity whereas happy songs did little to improve sad moods. Significantly, though, further research shows that this decrease in positivity is neither permanent nor detrimental.
When people listen to sad music, they're not just indulging in their own emotions. According to VICE, more empathetic people typically enjoy sad music. Sad music may offer us a safe proxy to work through our own feelings — and offer us comfort that we aren't alone.
And it's not just in the lyrics.
In 2012, Adele won six Grammy Awards — including one for her tear-jerker ballad "Someone Like You" — because she had become a shoulder to cry on for most everyone in the world. John Sloboda, professor of music psychology at London's Guildhall School of Music and Drama, speculated on NPR that the song was such a hit because Adele sang a unique note — called an appoggiatura — during the word "you" in the first line of the chorus. An appoggiatura is an enunciated note that is in slight dissonance to its surrounding chord. As creatures of predictability, this unforeseen dissonance startles the subconscious and awakens an immediate stir of sympathy. It also refocuses the mind on those powerfully somber lyrics, eventually leading to the dreaded tightening of the throat and swelling of the eyes:
But why would you want to feel that way? Scholars have hypothesized that sad music actually has a neurological function.
David Huron, Ohio University's School of Music professor, thinks that sad music evokes a prolactin release in the listener's brain. Prolactin is the chemical that is used to help curb grief because it's also released during basic human activities — like when we eat, when women ovulate or breastfeed and (perhaps most importantly) when we have sex. So sad music actually activates a chemical that tones down your grief — suggesting that being sad (and listening to sad music to get there) has deep evolutionary benefits.
That fits nicely with what psychologists have found about how negative emotions aid in human survival. Though we live in a positive-psych world that encourages us to pretend everything's fine when we usually know better, it's actually healthy to focus on what's wrong when your feelings tell you you're down.
Processing negative feeling(s) teaches us not only to avoid a similar emotionally negative experience later — a process not unlike the reinforcement of physical pain — but also to what would bring us positivity. Listening to sad music helps us focus in on what's making us sad by empathizing with someone else.
Sometimes, you just need to let your guard down.