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.”