Making My Peace … with listening to sad songs
Elton John, the English musician, sang about sad songs. Remember his 1984 Sad Songs (Say So Much)? He wrote, “If someone else is suffering enough, oh, to write it down, when every single word makes sense, then it’s easier to have those songs around.”
I like (most) sad songs. I listen to them, not to feel sad, but to get comfort, soothing, and stillness. A bit of a cry too. There’s something in the haunting voices of the singers, something profound and sorrowful in the lyrics, something in the quietness, something in the elongated notes.
Psychologists say that people don’t want to be sad and depressed – they want happiness. So why do people listen to sad songs? Psychologists and musicologists have tried to analyse parts of sad songs – mode, tempo, rhythm, timbre etc. – and their influences on people.
Mario Attie-Picker (philosopher at Loyola University Chicago), Tara Venkatesan (cognitive scientist and operatic soprano), George E. Newman (psychologist and cognitive scientist, formerly at Yale University), and Joshua Knobe (experimental philosopher and psychologist at Yale University) looked at the phenomenon of sad songs in 2023, publishing a forthcoming article in the Journal of Aesthetic Education, focusing on feelings. They told reporter Oliver Whang of The New York Times that sad songs may, paradoxically, have a dual or multi-dimensional nature. They cited a previous Durham University study in England in 2016 in which Tuomas Eerola found that 363 listeners categorized sad songs roughly into three categories: 1) grief – powerful negative feelings such as anger, terror, and despair; 2) melancholia – a gentle sadness, longing, or self-pity; and 3) sweet sorrow – a pleasant pang of consolation or appreciation.
The 2023 researchers looked at the paradox of aloneness (when listening to sad songs) and connecting to others at the same time (through similar emotions and resonance with sad songs). They established a two-part experiment.
In part one, researchers gave a song description (out of 4 choices) to 401 participants: 1) conveys deep and complex emotions but technically very flawed; 2) technically flawless but does not convey deep or complex emotions; 3) deeply emotional and technically flawless; and 4) technically flawed and unemotional.
On a seven-point scale, participants indicated that deeply emotional but technically flawed songs best reflected the essence of music in general – joy, sadness, anger, etc. In other words, participants said that emotional expression was more important than technical proficiency when listening to music and songs.
In part two, researchers gave 450 participants (different from those in part one) 72 descriptions of emotional songs. They found that the emotions that were most important to them were reflected in songs that made people feel more connected to one another in conversation: love, joy, loneliness, sadness, ecstasy, calmness, and sorrow.
They conclude that people listen to sad songs, not for emotional reactions and not because they like sadness, but for the sense of connection to others and an appreciation of the lyrics that resonate a shared sadness.
Psychologists and medical practitioners also say that emotional crying releases oxytocin, a stress-reducing hormone and mood-enhancer. Crying is also thought to increase people’s tolerance to physical and emotional pain. I’ve written more about the psychology of crying in my website page: Cry it Out.
The research is interesting, but we don’t think about what sad songs are doing, we just listen to them whenever we feel like it. Having read the research though, I think I relate more to the emotional category ‘sweet sorrow’ – i.e., feeling ‘a pleasant pang of consolation or appreciation’ when I listen to sad songs.
But it’s a complex thing. The researchers say that sad songs and sad music are layered – feelings to sad songs depend upon the artist, the song, the music, our past experiences, our recent experiences, and so on.
An example is the song Hurt, written by Trent Reznor, founder of the American rock band Nine Inch Nails, released in 1995. The band, formed in 1988 is still performing. It wasn’t until Johnny Cash sang it in 2002 that it hit me like a bullet. For me, it’s not so much about the lyrics, which are open to interpretation; it’s the way it’s sung – so incredibly sorrowfully – that makes it one of the best sad songs in musical history. Strong statement, I know, but Cash’s soulful voice – and knowing his background – made me realise how powerfully it can connect with so many people so globally.
The researchers of the 2023 study may well have pinpointed the importance of feeling connected to others with similar emotions, even though their experiences may be vastly different.
I think Elton John said it best when he sang “sad songs say so much.” Even without words.
Making my peace with listening to sad songs, I learned the following:
- Sad music strikes a common chord
- Sad music often uses instruments and sounds not noticed in other music
- Sad song lyrics are like poetry
- Sad songs sound sadder by some singers more than others
- Sad songs bring sweet sorrow
- Sad songs enhance empathy and sympathy for others
- Sad songs are soothing and calming
- Sad songs enable thoughts about different scenarios and outcomes
- Sad songs say what could have or should have been said in real life
- Sad songs release emotions
- Sad songs bring relief
- Sad songs often bring up happy memories