The Psychology of Sad Songs - How Music Connects Us with Our Pain

Dr. Donna L. Roberts

When all hope is gone, you know sad songs say so much. — Elton John
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Sad songs have long been a staple in music, with many people turning to them in times of despondency or heartbreak. But why do we find solace in listening to songs that make us feel worse? Well, it turns out there are distinct psychological mechanisms behind our preference for sad music.

Social Connection and Emotional Expression

One theory regarding the appeal of sad music argues that it provides a sense of social connectedness. Social connectedness refers to a feeling of being part of a group, family, or society. It emphasizes the bonds people build with each other and their affiliation with the wider community and the human condition. Individuals who listen to sad music after experiencing a breakup typically report feeling less lonely and more connected to others who have experienced similar emotions (Sachs, Damasio, & Habibi, 2015, Schäfer, et al., 2013). This is also related to the way sad music allows us to express and process our emotions in a safe and controlled way (Huron, 2011; Krumhansl, 1997).

Another reason why people may surprisingly enjoy sad music is that it allows for the expression of emotions that may not be socially acceptable in everyday life. For example, it may be seen as weak or vulnerable to openly express feelings of sadness or heartbreak. Sad music allows for the expression of these emotions without fear of judgment or backlash (Huron, 2011; Huron & Vuoskoski, 2020). This suggests that sad music may have a cathartic effect, helping individuals to process and release negative emotions.

Relatedly, the experience allows individuals to regulate and control mood, as well as safely confront and process negative emotions, leading to a sense of resolution and closure (Krahe & Bienick, 2012; Krumhansl, 1997; Schäfer, et al., 2013). Sad music may serve as a form of self-regulation, helping individuals to cope with difficult emotions and situations (Schäfer, et al., 2013). According to a study by Kawakami and colleagues (2013), listening to sad music can paradoxically lead to an increase in positive emotions, such as peacefulness and serenity, and a decrease in negative emotions, such as anxiety and anger.

The Cognitive Connection

In addition to providing emotional catharsis, sad music may also have cognitive benefits, through such processes as cognitive reappraisal (Chin & Rickard, 2014; Witvliet & Vrana, 2007). Cognitive reappraisal refers to the attempt to reinterpret an emotion-eliciting situation in a way that alters its meaning and changes its emotional impact (Lazarus & Alfert, 1964; Gross & John, 2003). The cognitive processing that accompanies listening to sad music can, along with the aforementioned feelings of social connection, elicit a cognitive reframing of experiences that will culminate in increased feelings of peacefulness, acceptance and serenity, as well as increased mindfulness and self-awareness. This suggests that the cognitive processing that one engages in while listening to sad music may have a meditative effect, helping individuals to calm their thoughts and focus inward (Yehuda, 2011).

However, it is important to note that the research related to this topic can be conflicting with some also indicating that there may be drawbacks to listening to sad music. For example, excessive exposure to sad music has been linked to an increased risk of depression. It is also possible that sad music may exacerbate negative emotions in individuals who are already experiencing high levels of stress or sadness (Kanagala, 2021; Schäfer, et al., 2013; ter Bogt et. Al., 2021).

The Role of Nostalgia

Another aspect to consider in the psychology of sad music is the role of nostalgia. Nostalgia is a complex emotion that involves a longing for the past, often accompanied by feelings of sadness and loss. It is not uncommon for people to turn to sad music when feeling nostalgic, as the music may evoke memories and emotions associated with a past event or time period (Wildschut, Sedikides, Arndt, & Routledge, 2006).

There is evidence to suggest that nostalgia can have both positive and negative effects on well-being. On the one hand, nostalgic reminiscing has been linked to increased feelings of social connectedness, self-esteem, and positive emotions (Sedikides, Leunissen, & Wildschut, 2022). On the other hand, excessive nostalgia has been associated with decreased well-being and an inability to move on from the past (Wildschut et al., 2006).

Furthermore, the effects of nostalgia may be influenced by the valence of the memories being reminisced upon. That is, nostalgic memories that are predominantly positive may have a more positive impact on well-being, while those that are predominantly negative may have a more negative impact (Sedikides, Leunissen, & Wildschut, 2022). This may help to explain why some people find sad music to be comforting, while others find it distressing.
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Individual Differences

From a micro perspective (i.e., focusing on the experience of the individual), the way in which people respond to sad music may be related to their personality. Research has shown that certain personality traits are associated with a greater preference for sad music. Specifically, individuals who score high in openness to experience, agreeableness, and empathy tend to have a greater preference for sad music (Rentfrow & Gosling, 2003; Vuoskoski, 2012). In addition, individuals who score high in neuroticism, or a tendency towards negative emotions and sensitivity to stress, may be more likely to turn to sad music as a way to cope with negative emotions (Garrido & Schubert, 2011).

These associations are generalizations and do not necessarily mean that individuals with certain personality traits are more likely to experience negative emotions or that sad music causes negative emotions. Rather, these associations suggest that individuals with certain personality traits may be more drawn to sad music and may find it more emotionally resonant.

In addition to personality, the context in which sad music is consumed may also impact its effects on well-being. For example, listening to sad music while engaged in a distracting activity, such as exercising or driving, may lead to a greater sense of enjoyment and a decrease in negative emotions. In research on human emotions, distracting activities refer to those generally pleasurable activities that tend to distract an individual from negative emotions. In contrast, listening to sad music while engaged in a non-distracting activity, such as studying or working, may lead to an increase in negative emotions. While the specifics of these differing activities may vary among individual, the context and environment in which sad music is consumed may play a role in its effects on well-being (Schäfer, et al., 2013)

Interestingly, music training and expertise may also play a critical role in the experience of sad music. Research has shown that individuals with music training tend to have a greater preference for sad music (Battcock, & Schutz, 2022; Koelsch et al. 2002; Sherwin and Sajda 2013). This may be because individuals with this expertise have a greater understanding of the technical aspects of music, such as melody, harmony, and form, which allows them to more fully appreciate the emotional depth and complexity of sad music.

In addition to preference, music training and expertise may also impact the way in which individuals respond to sad music emotionally. Individuals with music training have a greater increase in positive emotions, such as peacefulness and serenity, and a greater decrease in negative emotions, such as anxiety and anger, after listening to sad music (Battcock, & Schutz, 2022; Koelsch et al. 2002; Sherwin and Sajda 2013). This suggests that music training and expertise may enhance the emotional benefits of sad music.

As with all correlational research on human behavior, it is crucial to remember that, while it may seem intuitive, the relationship between music training and expertise and the psychological effects of sad music is not necessarily causal. It is possible that individuals who have a greater preference for sad music are more likely to seek out music training and expertise, rather than music training and expertise causing a greater preference for sad music. Further research is needed to fully understand the relationship between these factors.
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The Role of Culture

Conversely. from a macro perspective, the psychology of sad music is also dependent on the cultural context in which it is consumed (Clarke, DeNora & Vuoskoski, 2015). Different cultures may have different attitudes towards the expression and experience of negative emotions, which may impact the way in which sad music is perceived and used. In general, research has shown that collectivistic cultures, which place a high value on social harmony and the needs of the group, tend to view emotions as something that should be regulated and kept private. In contrast, individualistic cultures, which place a high value on self-expression and individual autonomy, tend to view emotions as something that should be openly expressed and shared. This cultural difference may influence the way in which individuals in collectivistic and individualistic cultures use sad music to cope with negative emotions.

In collectivistic cultures, sad music may be used as a way to privately cope with negative emotions, as the open expression of emotions may be seen as disruptive to social harmony. In contrast, individuals in individualistic cultures may be more likely to use sad music as a way to openly express and share their emotions with others.

Of course, these cultural differences are not absolute, and there may be significant within-culture variability in the way in which individuals cope with negative emotions through music. However, understanding the cultural context in which sad music is consumed can provide insight into the psychological mechanisms behind its use and its potential effects on well-being.

As with most aspects of human behavior, the psychological mechanisms behind our preference for sad music are complex and multifaceted. Sad music may provide a sense of social connectedness, allow for the expression of emotions that may not be socially acceptable, serve as a form of self-regulation, and have evolutionary roots. However, it is important to be mindful of the potential drawbacks of listening to sad music, and to seek support if necessary.


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Writer and university professor researching media psych, generational studies, addiction psychology, human and animal rights, and the intersection of art and psychology.

Canandaigua, NY

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