As I glance at the collection of CDs gathering dust on my desk (I don’t even own a CD player anymore), I notice how much of popular music these days is filled with tear-jerking ballads. Although it could be that as a country music fan, I have more sad songs than most in my music collection.
My favorite country song of all time is “Three Wooden Crosses” by Randy Travis. The subject of the song, death, is about as sad as it comes. A quick poll of my Facebook friends reveals I’m not the only one. One friend’s favorite song is the Beatles’ “Yesterday” and another’s is “Stairway to Heaven” by Led Zeppelin — both tearjerkers in their own right. So what gives?
A new study might shed some light. Published in the journal PLOS One just weeks ago, the study, conducted by researchers at the Free University of Berlin in Germany, corralled 772 participants from around the world. Researchers found that listening to sad music doesn’t necessarily make you sad. In fact, the opposite may be true. Sad music evoked feelings of nostalgia, peacefulness, tenderness and wonder.
“For many individuals, listening to sad music can actually lead to beneficial emotional effects,” the researchers, led by psychologist Liila Taruffi, report. “Music-evoked sadness can be appreciated not only as an aesthetic, abstract reward, but [it] also plays a role in well-being, by providing consolation as well as regulating negative moods and emotions.”
Nostalgia was the most common emotion associated with listening to sad music, not surprisingly, since we know that listening to music can take you back to a time and place long ago.
The study also found that people tend to listen to sad music when they’re feeling sad themselves, though the music doesn’t make them sadder. Instead, it helps regulate their mood. Researchers conjecture that this information could be useful in understanding how music therapy helps treat certain conditions.
“Thus, from a therapeutic perspective, one could reasonably interpret a patient’s decision to select sad music as, apart from an aesthetic preference, an indicator of emotional distress. This might be useful especially in children or adults with autism spectrum disorder or alexithymic individuals, who have a reduced ability to express their emotions verbally,” the researchers said. “By ‘tuning’ their emotions with the ones expressed by the music, patients may feel heard and understood, even in the absence of a specific emotional vocabulary. This empathic connection between the music and the patient may help to relieve distress and to progress in therapy.”
The idea that people would find gratification in listening to sad music is consistent with a growing body of media psychology scholarship focused on “meaningful media,” explained professor Mary Beth Oliver, co-director of the Media Effects Laboratory at Penn State University’s College of Communications. “In short, this research suggests that media entertainment can represent much more than just slapstick comedy and thrill rides,” she said. “In addition, it can encourage people to reflect on life meanings, human compassion, and the importance of virtues such as kindness, love and connection.”
A study conducted by Japanese researchers and published in a 2013 edition of the journal Frontiers corroborates. The researchers found that sad music evokes pleasant emotion.
Got you in the mood for sad music? Lucky for you, I have a few recommendations based on my music collection. Listen to what you will, and experience the catharsis of a truly sad song:
“Brick,” Ben Folds Five
“What Hurts the Most,” Rascal Flatts
“Hallelujah,” Jeff Buckley
“Whiskey Lullaby,” Braid Paisley, featuring Alison Krauss
“Tears in Heaven,” Eric Clapton