Why Do People With Depression Like Listening To Sad Music?

By Christian Jarrett

We all know the powerful effect that music can have on mood. You might be feeling rather chirpy, but then a tear-jerker comes on the car radio and you arrive home feeling morose (conversely, of course, happy tunes can lift our spirits). For most of us, these effects are not a big deal. But what if you are living with depression? Now the implications become more serious. And, according to a provocative study published a few years ago, far from seeking out uplifting music, people diagnosed with depression are notably more inclined than healthy controls to choose to listen to sad music (and look at sad images). The controversial implication is that depressed people deliberately act in ways that are likely to maintain their low mood. Now a study in the journal Emotion has replicated this finding, but the researchers also present evidence suggesting depressed people are not seeking to maintain their negative feelings, but rather that they find sad music calming and even uplifting.

“The current study is the most definitive to date in probing depression-related preferences for sad music using different tasks, and the reasons for these preferences,” write the team at the University of South Florida, led by Sunkyung Yoon.

The research involved 38 female undergrads diagnosed with depression and 38 non-depressed female undergrad controls. The first part of the study was a replication attempt using the same materials as the 2015 paper that found depressed people preferred sad music. The participants listened to 30-second excerpts of sad (“Adagio for Strings” by Samuel Barber” and “Rakavot” by Avi Balili), happy and neutral music, and stated which they would prefer to listen to again in the future. Successfully replicating the earlier research, Yoon and his team found that their depressed participants were more likely to choose the sad music clips.

However, unlike in that earlier research, Yoon’s team also asked their participants why they made the choices they did. The majority of the participants with depression who favoured sad music said that they did so because it was relaxing, calming or soothing.

The second part of the study used new music samples: 84 pairs of 10-second clips of instrumental film music, contrasting happy, sad, fear-inducing, neutral, and also high and low energy tracks. In each case the same participants as before indicated which music they’d prefer to listen to again later. They also heard all the samples again at the end and stated what effect they had on their emotions. The researchers found again that people with depression had a far greater preference than controls for sad, low-energy music (but not fear-inducing music). Critically, though, when they heard these clips again, they reported that they made them feel more happiness and less sadness, contradicting the provocative idea that depressed people are seeking to perpetuate their low mood.

This study is unable to speak to why depressed people find low-energy, sad music uplifting, although common sense suggests that if you are feeling down, then a fast-paced, happy clappy tune might be irritating and inappropriate, whereas a more soothing, serious tune could be comforting. Further clues come from another recent study that investigated why (non-depressed) people generally like listening to sad music when they’re feeling down – for instance, some participants said the sad music acted like a supportive friend.

The new research involved only a small sample of female undergrads, and it only looked at emotional effects over a short time frame. Yoon and his colleagues acknowledge more research is needed to find out why exactly depressed people favour sad music. For now though, the new findings suggest that this preference  “… may reflect a desire for calming emotional experience rather than a desire to augment sad feelings.”

Why Do Depressed People Prefer Sad Music?

Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest

32 thoughts on “Why Do People With Depression Like Listening To Sad Music?”

  1. I can easily tell you the reason in my case.

    As long as I can remember, creating sad music or listening to someone else’s sad music has helped me to experience my own sadness and depression more clearly and fully.

    As I have said many times, I realized a long time ago that although depression feels like being in a deep pit or hole, it’s actually more like a long dark tunnel that you have to go through to get to the other side and back into the light. As I’ve also said, we fight hard not to fall into that mythical black hole and that’s counterproductive because it makes us stop and keeps us in the depression longer. The key is to find a way to keep moving forward.

    What sad music helps me do is process all the feelings – and the irrational thoughts – more easily and more clearly and fully. Using my tunnel analogy, that keeps me moving forward to the light at the end of the tunnel and that’s why it helps me to feel better.

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    1. I like your description…….a long tunnel. I find that the sad music really brings on the sadness and get’s me really down to the bottom…. almost like “let’s get this thing over with and get to the end of the tunnel” So I end up in the tunnel for a far shorter period.

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  2. If you smile more you are more inclined to feel more happy. If you want to listen to some of the Smiths more depressing songs all day, go ahead, but the affects could be that you feel more sad. I like the Smiths, but I also like to change it up to some country, some rock, some rap, and some latin music so I’m not going to get depressed listening to them all day either.

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    1. Ah yes, country music… often celebrated as the happiest genre of music. There’s a good reason they call Hank Williams the “king of the upbeat jams.”

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    2. As a person who has had depression for as long as i can remember, sad songs help me find light, and some are relatable, some are motivational. But a smile simply doent help become happier, most of the time, it makes me feel worse, i think my smile is ugly. But if it helps you then, congrats, if only it was that easy. Depression is somthing more complex than most people, even doctors, cant comprehend if they havent experiemced it first-hand. My depression is unfixable, no medicines or anything has helped and worked, but relatable music (i call it relatable, not sad) helps me face anotjer day

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    1. Exactly. 1) It makes you feel less alone. Others (or at least someone else) understood. Maybe even experienced something similar.
      2) On a slightly deeper level, when you are depressed, you are vibrating/resonating at a certain frequency. Matching that frequency is soothing, as opposed to a different
      frequency which would be jarring. Think of how a parent talks to a sad child – they match the tone, and the child is soothed.

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  3. Yes, indeed. I had that very same experience with sad music before.
    I had an interview once that I was sure I had flunked, upon returning home feeling utterly crushed and helpless I played on some of my favorite songs which happened to be somewhat sad ones ” Addelle – Someone like you ” and ” Cage the elephant – Trouble “, the effect these two songs had on me I can’t really describe in words, but it was really as if my spirits were lifted up in a surreal way by two close friends all my sadness and dissappoitment turned into relaxation and hope. And I got the job eventually 😉

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  4. If one is depressed sad music will feel more empathetic and reassuring. To listen to happy music when depressed will emphasise how far away from a happy mood one is and so tend to be more depressing.

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  5. I agree with the other comments. Perhaps a song that is only a slightly more hopeful/happy than the current mood would be most helpful.

    An entirely happy song with a sad mood is jarring an alienating, it just doesn’t provide the effect that makes music useful in the first place. I think the original idea was quite ridiculous, it sounded like the people who had come up with that had never been sad.

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  6. Sad music does not sound sad when you are depressed but sounds ‘profound’, ‘deep’, ‘moving’ and relevant.

    Happy musics sounds superficial, flighty, dumb and lacking any seriousness of depth. When you are depressed you can connect with the music and at leaves you feeling uplifted and invigorated.

    Compare the condition when, in a neutral mood, you are contemplating something really important and profound such as the nature of the universe. Indeed, the same kind of music backs programs on such issues as back depressing issues like death in war: long deep tones etc.

    It is very important to realise that the nature of music is subjective and that people in profound moods and depressed people do not hear the music the same as light carefree people just wanting to distract their attention from anything of a serious nature.

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  7. Would love to see a musicologist’s take on this – personally I find sad music much more balanced in terms of the congruence between lyrics and music, and within the music, less dissonance between the notes and chords etc. So I tend to get flat and sad when things are out of balance, and listening to sad music seems to restore some balance in at least one aspect of my life that I can influence easily.

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  8. It does make sense, but also perhaps prior studies, or common sense thinking, has been to narrow in the emotions we are measuring and thinking about. For example, happy, energetic, motivated, inspired can all be seen as ‘positive’ emotional states, but are all different to each other. Also, different emotions and feelings could give rise to different emotions as a result. In the instance of music, from a qualitative point of view, listening to an upbeat song when I’m already in a chirpy mood seeks to energise me. If I’m wanting to feel more inspired I might listen to something more evocative and moving – still putting me in a positive place, but isn’t necessarily the same semantically as a ‘happy’ state of mind.

    I often listen to music that might be considered sad – such as Chopin’s Nocturnes, or Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. Far from leaving me feeling depressed, they are so emotive that they a) make me ‘feel’ (far more than would say an upbeat Bruno Mars song, sorry Bruno), and leave me feeling invigorated. It’s really not as simple as a ‘happy’ vs ‘sad’ song and more about what does that music emote in each particular person.

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  9. From an evolutionary perspective this makes sense.

    An evolutionary perspective doesn’t explicitly explain what happens here on a subjective level, nor what psychological strategies should be applied, but it does point to a subconscious drive behind it which favours the group at the expense of the individual’s experience.

    In evolutionary psychology, depression – or conversely mania – is seen as an individual response to align oneself to a changed rank in society. A depressed state lowers self esteem via the specific mechanism for this purpose: mood.

    “In fact mood change is the only rapid method of changing self-esteem after adolescence is completed.”
    “The homeostasis of the group is achieved at the expense of mood change in the individual.”

    – From “Subordination and Defeat – An Evolutionary Approach To Mood Disorders and Their Therapy”
    by Leon Sloman & Paul Gilbert

    Without going into the musicological or subjective psychological reasons (which I don’t know enough about), music – as a representation of mood – tends to recall moods when played back.

    Music is an emotionally-aligning medium which reaches deep into our psyche via our speech and fear center’s strong neural connections to sound. More-so than other mediums, music can skillfully manipulate and subjectively assist in setting an individual to a required state, and in this case a specific piece of music would best-acknowledge changed rank by representing loss with a degree of acceptance.

    The acceptance aspect is possibly where the upliftment is felt, because at that point the evolutionary drive could naturally be expected to respond to and reward acceptance of changed rank.

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  10. I like Stonjek’s reply. I find thatk happy music is the equivalent of people saying ‘Be happy! Don’t be sad!”, which never works. It is just out of tune (sorry!) with the emotions you are feeling.

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  11. And what about classic music? In general they are sad although we cannot generalize saying the sad people cultivated it preferentially. May be the construct introvertion-extrovertion play some role lending the preference.

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  12. I believe it has a lot to do with connection. Feeling sad is often about feeling disconnected from the outside world for whatever reason. Identiying with someone else that understands the pain helps us feel like we aren’t alone in our pain and that if other people have gone through it, we can too.

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  13. Addicted to listening to deep very loud, pink Floyd, Bob Dylan, Janice Joplin, pearl jam, AC DC , and so many more , as I feel my family who are deceased …. Brother (hung himself ) my dad ( very abusive n alcoholic but I adored him ) ( mum also emotionally abusive and alcoholic who I adored) are in the room close to me ,but only when I’m drunk and I can really release and feel safe but sometimes self harm , I’ve been this way for the last 6 years and can’t stop. Please help.

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  14. There are three kinds of depression: early (mellow) despondency, moderate (brief) misery and significant burdensome issue. Sadness is, obviously, reparable; be that as it may, it is additionally risky and can prompt suicide.

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