Why do we choose to listen to sad songs, when there are plenty of happy ones to go around? Adele’s crazy-popular track, "Someone Like You", didn’t become an international number one hit simply because she has a ridiculous voice (it certainly didn’t hurt though), and who hasn't accidentally listened to too much Jeff Buckley on repeat? What’s going on with us?
A team of psychologists from the Free University of Berlin in Germany decided to investigate the science behind the lure of the melancholy tune by analysing how they make us feel. They gathered data from 772 participants, including 408 from Europe and the rest from Asia, and North America. Each participant was asked to respond to a survey about how often they listen to sad music, what kinds of situations prompted them to do so, and how they feel when they’re listening to it.
Publishing in the journal PLOS One, the researchers found that “a wide range of complex and partially positive emotions, such as nostalgia, peacefulness, tenderness, transcendence, and wonder,” were brought out in the participants by sad music. The data revealed that nostalgia was the most prevalent emotion, brought out in over 76 percent of the participants, while peacefulness came in second place at 57.5 percent.
What do nostalgia, peacefulness, tenderness, transcendence, and wonder all have in common? They're all healthy, feel-good emotions. “For many individuals, listening to sad music can actually lead to beneficial emotional effects,” the researchers, led by psychologist Liila Taruffi, report. “Music-evoked sadness can be appreciated not only as an aesthetic, abstract reward, but [it] also plays a role in well-being, by providing consolation as well as regulating negative moods and emotions.”
The study also revealed that a high number of participants reported listening to sad music in situations of emotional distress or when they’re feeling lonely, so it could be a form of self-medication. “For most of the people, the engagement with sad music in everyday life is correlated with its potential to regulate negative moods and emotions, as well as to provide consolation,” the researchers add.
These findings appear to have some connection to previous research into sad music that suggests listening to it changes the chemistry in our brains to help us get over our grief. According to David Huron, a professor of music at Ohio University in the US, listening to sad music likely causes a spike in the hormone prolactin in the brain.
"Prolactin is the chemical that is used to help curb grief because it's also released during basic human activities - like when we eat, when women ovulate or breastfeed and (perhaps most importantly) when we have sex,” says David Taylor Sloan at Mic.com. "So sad music actually activates a chemical that tones down your grief - suggesting that being sad (and listening to sad music to get there) has deep evolutionary benefits.