We spend most of our lives trying to be happy. And yet when we’re feeling sad we put on a tear-jerker tune and wallow in our misery. Why?
It’s an aspect of the psychology of music that’s been surprisingly overlooked. Now Annemieke Van den Tol and Jane Edwards at the University of Limerick have surveyed 65 adults online about a time they’d had a negative experience and then chose to listen to a sad piece of music. Most of the participants were Irish but there were also respondents in the Netherlands, USA, Germany and Spain. The age range was 18 to 66 (average 26) with 30 women.
Because this issue has hardly been investigated before, the researchers opted for a qualitative approach. They analysed the participants’ descriptions and looked for recurring themes in why they chose to play sad music.
Van den Tol and Edwards felt that the answers fell into two main overarching themes – the strategies people adopted in selecting sad music, and the functions served by the music.
Among the strategies was the desire for connection. People wanted to listen to music that matched their current mood. “I didn’t want music that would cheer me up, I wanted to stay with those emotions for a while until I was ready to let go of them,” said one 25-year-old female participant. This notion fits with past research showing that people’s current mood is often a better predictor of their choice of music than their desired mood.
Another strategy was using sad music as a memory trigger – to experience nostalgia or feel closer to a person who was missed. “I selected the music because I know he [the person who had died] had liked the music too,” said a 48-year-old female.
Other participants described selecting sad music for its aesthetic value. In this case people weren’t choosing the music to enhance their own sadness or to reminisce, they simply thought the music was beautiful and high quality.
The final strategy related to the message communicated by the sad song. These were often tracks that were sad but conveyed a hopeful message. “The Waterboys song: to me it seems to channel my emotions, and the lyrics give me a sense of hope,” said a 31-year-old male.
The self-regulatory functions of listening to sad music were closely related to the above strategies. So, for example, participants spoke of the re-experiencing of their affect. “I was at home, feeling sorry for myself … though I could not cry,” said a 24-year-old female. “So I decided to play some sad music in order to cry a little and then feel relieved and move on.” A 21-year-old lady put it like this: “the music would encourage me to feel the pain as it were, plus allow me to have a good cry for myself … It probably did not make me feel better at the time, but may have helped me cope overall.”
Another function the researchers labelled cognitive. This included a sense induced by sad music of “common humanity” – seeing one’s own feelings as part of the larger human experience rather than lonely and isolating.
There were also participants who saw sad music as a friend, as if it were empathising with their suffering. “I felt befriended by the music,” said a 33-year-old woman. “By this I mean that if you were to pretend the music/lyrics was a real person, with its lyrics of understanding friendship, comfort and confidence, then surely the song would be your best friend.”
Other identified functions were mood enhancement, retrieving memories, and social, which had to do with feel closer to loved ones. Sad music also acted as a distraction. In this case, participants described how sad music allowed them to escape silence. Jolly music was unthinkable, but a mournful tune broke the silence and created a distance from one’s own negative emotions.
Van den Tol and Edwards said their survey provided the perfect springboard for more research into this topic. Future research “could examine the actual effects of music listening in a real life setting,” they suggested, “and how the achievement of self-regulatory goals relate to changes in affect, cognition, and behaviour.”
Do you like listening to sad music when you’re feeling down? What effect does the music have on you?
AJM Van den Tol, and J Edwards (2013). Exploring a rationale for choosing to listen to sad music when feeling sad. Psychology of Music DOI: 10.1177/0305735611430433
-By coincidence, another study into sad music is currently receiving a lot of attention in the media.