Beautiful Sad Music Can Help People Feel Better

The paradoxical nature of enjoying nominally negative emotions such as sadness in the context of the arts and fiction has been widely acknowledged by philosophers from Aristotle to Schopenhauer. However, only the last decade has provided empirical evidence of this paradox in action in the domains of psychology and neuroscience and started to expose the ways in which people derive profound enjoyment from tragic films, literature, and sad music.

Central to this paradox is the functional aspects of emotions, such as sadness as an outcome of significant personal loss that results in behavioural withdrawal and anhedonia. Fiction and music may be able to operate the very machinery responsible for real-life emotions such as sadness, but since it is detached from the actual consequences, the process can lead to a dramatically different outcome.

Music that induces sadness but is nevertheless intensely enjoyed provides a striking example of this phenomenon. It is not just the fact that most cultures have a distinct category for sad music, and that listeners frequently report everyday experiences of sadness induced by sad music but these experiences are commonly described to be highly enjoyable.

In general, here are some of the benefits.

  • It regulates mood. This is one of the effects of sad music on a psycho-social level. It helps disengage from a stressful situation and focus on the music instead. Moreover, a song’s lyrics may connect with the listener’s experience. In this manner, the music helps the listener by giving a voice to the emotions the listener cannot express.
  • It Induces nostalgia. Sad music is a powerful trigger for memories, especially important ones. Some theories on music suggest that sad music evokes memories of the experiences related to that feeling. As Paul Hindemith, the author of A Composer’s World, wrote, it is a “tour guide of past emotions.” Some songs remind a person of a particular point in time. The effect is nostalgia — feeling a sense of happiness in reminiscing bygone times.
  • It can separate a sad experience from sad music. A common thread between theories on sad music is that the stimulus (the sad experience) is not an immediate threat to a person. It sets a distance between the listener and the sad experience. According to some theories, sad music helps simulate sadness in the listener. This offers a chance for the person to experience negative emotions while being disconnected from any real negative scenario. Consequently, this sets an opportunity for the person to ruminate on his/her internal grief.
  • It curbs grief. In ancient Greece, Aristotle theorized that tragic theater plays helped the audience purge their emotions. This process is called catharsis. The same thing is said to apply to listening to sad music. Modern research has provided a biological basis for this effect. As a person is listening to sad music, the simulation of sadness tricks the brain into releasing prolactin. This hormone is known to alleviate feelings of grief.
  • It encourages empathy. In general terms, empathy is experiencing what another person is experiencing. Sad music often “moves” people by expressing loneliness and painful experiences. Empathy boosts this “moving” effect by intensifying the emotional responses. Furthermore, people with a strong disposition to empathy were found to enjoy sad music more.
  • It offers comfort. When it is difficult to approach others, some people turn to music. In this way, music becomes an imaginary friend from whom a person seeks comfort. By regulating mood and inducing catharsis, the listener slowly begins to feel better. Listening to sad music does not necessarily produce negative effects, and in fact, does the opposite. When feeling distressed, play a sad song and experience its benefits to help feel better.

Liila Taruffi and Stefan Koeisch, two researchers at the Freie Universität Berlin in Germany set out to explore our affinity for sad songs in a world where entire industries exist to help us eliminate sadness from our lives.

Their study — based on a survey of more than 770 people around the world and published in the journal PLOS ONE — discovered sad music can evoke positive emotions, like peacefulness and tenderness, and offers four distinct rewards for choosing that weepy ballad on your iPod.

“People turn to sad music for comfort, and to deal with bad feelings, but also simply for pleasure,” Liila Taruffi said. “(Sad music has) potential to regulate negative moods and emotions, as well as to provide consolation… In this sense, sad music can play a role in well-being.”

The four benefits they identified were:

1. The biggest reward turned out to be that sad songs allow you to feel sadness without any of its “real-life implications.” In other words, you can safely explore what it’s like to be a little blue without experiencing the intense grief of mourning a loved one, for example.

2. “Emotion regulation” was another important reward. Many respondents said that when they were in a bad mood, experiencing sadness through music made them feel better afterwards and provided an emotional boost. That may be because the songs help them to express and release their emotions, Taruffi noted. “Sad music promotes and creates a space for reflection and reappraisal of personal experiences, thoughts and feelings,” she added.

3. The reward of “imagination” allowed listeners to feel as though they could express themselves as richly as the mournful music.

4. The “empathy” reward made the listener feel good by allowing him to share the sadness of another human being through the song.

One study published by Antonio Damasio and Assal Habibi in Frontiers on Human Neuroscience proposed that listening to sad music helped correct homeostatic imbalance in the brain. Homeostasis refers to maintaining the balance of all bodily functions, which ensures an organism’s overall well-being. Researchers suggest that a sad experience may cause an imbalance, and listening to sad music may help correct it.

Another study by Tuaomas Eerola and colleagues published in the Physics on Life Reviews had a different take on the matter. The researchers examined the biological, psycho-social, and cultural factors that may contribute to the pleasurable effects of listening to sad music. After reviewing previous research and data from neuroimaging tools, they compiled the following information:

  • Biological level — Sad music induced homeostasis and the production of prolactin, a hormone that offers emotional relief.
  • Psycho-social level — It helped a person process his/her emotions through sharing emotions and social surrogacy (substitute for human interaction).
  • Cultural level — The pleasure gained from sad music was dependent on the culture, and it could have different meanings in various cultures.

Research from psychologists Annemieke J.M. Van den Tol and Jane Edwards at the universities of Kent and Limerick published in the Psychology of Music has found that music that is felt to be beautiful but sad can help people feel better when they’re feeling blue.

The research investigated the effects of what the researchers described as Self-Identified Sad Music (SISM) on people’s moods, paying particular attention to their reasons for choosing a particular piece of music when they were experiencing sadness — and the effect it had on them.

The study identified several motives for sad people to select a particular piece of music they perceive as ‘sad’, but found that in some cases their goal in listening is not necessarily to enhance mood. Choosing music identified as ‘beautiful’ was the only strategy that directly predicted mood enhancement, the researchers found.

In the research, hundreds of participants were asked to recall an adverse emotional event they had experienced, and the music they listened to afterwards which they felt portrayed sadness. It followed earlier research from the same team that identified that people do choose to listen to sad music when they’re feeling sad.

Van den Tol explained that the study found that among the factors influencing music choice were its memory triggers for a particular event or time; its perceived high aesthetic value — which involves selecting music that the person considers to be beautiful; and music that conveys a particular message.

She said: ‘We found in our research that people’s music choice is linked to the individual’s expectations for listening to music and its effects on them.

The results showed that if an individual has intended to achieve mood enhancement through listening to sad music, this was often achieved by first thinking about their situation or being distracted, rather than directly through listening to the music chosen.

Indeed, where respondents indicated they had chosen music intending to trigger memories, this had a negative impact on creating a better mood.

The only selection strategy that was found to directly predict mood enhancement was where the music was perceived by the listener to have high aesthetic value.

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Ray Williams

Author/Retired Executive Coach-Helping People Live Better Lives and Serve Others