why is listening to sad music pleasurable?

This week I want to look into something I have been dying to know for ages.

People seem to have a curated playlist that contains all the sad songs they feel connected to.

Indeed, If you go to Spotify or Apple Music there are hundreds playlists for all sorts of occasions, from partying, 80’s vibes to the best 100 songs from the last decade.

However we seem to have a thing for sad songs.

Surely I can think of some obvious reasons. First of all, “music speaks when words fail”. Sometimes we seem to lose words to describe our feelings and there is always one song that says it all for us. We might also be seeking validation from someone who has experienced the same thing before. Secondly, there seem to be hidden power in sad songs. It may be the tone or melody that lures us in. We just cannot resist hitting the replay button. Thirdly, also the reason that occurs to me most often, is that we use certain songs as a trigger to walk down the memory lane. I seem to have the ability to match certain experience, or even certain people to a particular song and I can pull myself back to the memory like I pull out a file from the bookshelf at 3am. Why? I have no idea. Maybe I want to understand myself better. Maybe I just want to hurt myself again.

Why do people listen to sad songs when they are sad?

I just finished my first semester of the master of music therapy course and I have learnt a lot about the positive effects music can bring to human beings. It intrigues me more on why sometimes we listen to sad music in order to feel sadder. It doesn’t make sense. So I did some research (from the school library, not your trustee Google), and here are a few points I found interesting:

  1. The type of sadness that is evoked by sad music appears to be pleasant in its own way. In particular, there is a difference between “perceived emotion” and “felt emotion”. We perceive the sadness of sad music but feel both sadness and pleasure (more romantic, blither and less tragic) when we listen to it. Music-induced pleasure can activite the dopaminergic system just like when we have food and sex. (https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00311/full)
  2. Listening to sad music may be more adaptive for psychologically healthy people who are also more like to apply healthy coping strategies. (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S019745561630082X)
  3. self-regulation: music-listening can be used to change, maintain, or reinforce affect, moods and emotions; for relaxation, for reminiscence or to trigger nostalgia, or to stimulate cognitive effects; for meaning enhancement or as a platform for mental work or cognitive reappraisal. People most strongly prefer to listen to music with a negative valence, whereas people are more inclined to repair their mood by listening to more uplifting music shortly after a negative mood. It seems like sad music provides a chance to sort out one’s feelings. (https://journals-sagepub-com.ezproxy.uws.edu.au/doi/full/10.1177/0305735613517410)
  4. The myth, or the paradox of enjoying sad music is actually not so much of a paradox. When one listens to music, the act itself relates to various domains e.g. psychology, neuroscience, biology etc. One also brings in his or her own experiences, emotions or cultural background when listening to music. Hence, it is difficult to trace if one is “intensifying” sadness or merely moved by the emotions conveyed in the music. (https://www-sciencedirect-com.ezproxy.uws.edu.au/science/article/pii/S157106451730163X)

So a small conclusion I can draw from this is the fact that sad music does not necessarily make people “sadder”, if we define music-induced emotions properly. Maybe we overthink the whole situation – it’s just personal music listening preference?

But music is a double-edged sword. As mentioned in point 4 above, one brings in his or her own resources and thoughts when listening to music. We are the one to determine how we want to feel. In other words, we pick songs to suit our purpose. Because we hold this power, we can either leverage music to enrich our lives or work through our sadness, or we can let it take us to the darkside. I strongly recommend you to check out this TED Talk by Professor Katrina McFerran. It might change what you think about this seemingly innocent habit of music listening (this is also why music therapy fascinates me). I actually came across another reading that compared adolescents’ intensive music listening activities to taking drugs because both are a vehicle for overcoming depression (I cannot find the source now but trust me, I found it ridiculous too).

Just be careful about what we consume. That’s my take. Everything is a resource that can either benefit us or get us killed. Not just music, but TV shows, alcohol, or even money.

The secret is out

Here is why I’m still wide awake at 3am.

I always have a playlist on hand. That playlist is subject to change. I think at some point during my most toxic period I had one for after midnight, one for listening when I’m driving alone at night, and one for the songs that combine nicely around certain themes.

Yep, I am a curator.

Keep this to yourself, yeh? 👀