Sad music is certainly not a panacea for all the mental ailments of this paradoxical age—at the same time desperate to find ways to express, but increasingly less able to manage feelings—but it does afford opportunities to experience and validate emotion, forcing bridges as it goes.
Why don’t we always turn to Pharrell to make us “Happy?” Whether we are aware of it or not, we enjoy sad music more than happy music. Sad music moves us more than happy music, we find it more beautiful and we often feel more ourselves after we have listened to it.
Music is a marker of human existence, and as a therapeutic tool is widely accepted. Self-medication of passive music therapy is totally normal: we listen to music alongside doing other things, turning up our headphones to add hue to the grey commute or indeed “Lose Yourself” in the gym effort.
But alongside the motivational music to get us moving, very often it’s the more melancholic music we will reach for when we want to switch off, feel something or even feel better. This does seem counterintuitive but it is perhaps totally understandable. Pursuing sadness in art is not a new phenomenon.
Catharsis, the rapid experience of negative emotion and similarly rapid purging, is Aristotle’s own well-known theory. Movies and TV drama serve us in the same way as tragic theatre served the ancients: we journey with the hero (or anti-hero) and feel a bond with their exploits. Music is clearly a more complex tool, used to tone the movie canvas—consider “Apocalypse Now” without Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” or “Gladiator” without Hans Zimmer.
Our brain plays a key part.
Music’s ability to provide us with chills is something we are all acutely aware of but is uncontrollable, often occurring at totally unexpected moments. Neuroscientists have shown that the same part of the brain related to action and reward is involved, and a dopamine response associated with pleasure is triggered. We are moved by the same bit of music each time because it provided enjoyment the last time, perhaps because of a particular memory—conscious or subconscious—or perhaps because of a particular minor-to-major transition: recently, watching Dunkirk, the unexpected reworking of Elgar’s “Enigma Variations” evoked a huge soaring sense of euphoria at the crucial scene. The emotive images obviously played a huge part but also cropped up a hazed memory of listening to the piece with my veteran grandfather on his record player decades earlier.
We can become gluttons for a fix. A notably upbeat college roommate would listen to markedly sad music on endless repeat: Nilsson’s “Without You” was played so regularly (and loudly), it had us all very clearly picturing what life might be like without him.
But instrumental music, obviously, does not have the monopoly on sad. Bon Iver’s vastly successfully 2008 debut album, “For Emma, Forever Ago,” is haunting, somber, but vitally, it was and is uplifting.
And we very often find sad music more beautiful than happy music. In part this is due, ironically, to the fact that sad music is often more concerned with what actually makes us happy—or the eudemonic—than happy music. Although Justin Vernon pieced together heart-open music about a devastating breakup, largely recorded in a remote wood cabin, it is almost celebratory.
Again, “Re: Stacks,” the final track on “For Emma, Forever Ago,” is a good example, twinning a simple and mostly major melody with lyrical themes of depression, lost chances and lost love. The listener is invited to engage with sorrow and in doing so, connection is made, the commonality of the human experience is witnessed and our sense of being is validated.
Psychologists have investigated further emotional benefits of sad music with lyrics: we learn about our feelings when we listen to sad music and, in turn, enjoy a sense of assurance because we realize we have the ability to feel. In addition, we feel a sort of communion with the composer and other listeners and can draw sense satisfaction from responding to an art form. And perhaps, most interestingly, we experience resolution by gaining the knowledge that an emotional state can and has been regulated
Resolving an emotion has echoes of catharsis but takes it further when the focus is on us:
Within the context of the piece of music, we are free to engage with an existential question and even negative themes but we are not actually in immediate crisis or necessarily a negative environment.
We are able to come through on the other side, 4 minutes later, and experience, even in an incredibly small way, the sense of resolving something, and potentially a marginally more upbeat position—think of the call to “hold on” in the climax of R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts.” We enjoy and gain the above benefits when we do not feel threatened, when we have disengaged from the immediate setting and are able to engage either with past or future or fictitious situations. We are able to allow thoughts that arise, even enter into memories and reminiscing, but feel safe. Our brain response treats us as if we have positively attended to an upset in our homeostasis and have returned to balance. And we feel perhaps a bit more human.
Sad music is certainly not a panacea for all the mental ailments of this paradoxical age—at the same time desperate to find ways to express, but increasingly less able to manage feelings—but it does afford opportunities to experience and validate emotion, forcing bridges as it goes. And that, for one, is something to be happy about. Keep listening.