There is bittersweet irony in loving sad songs. What is it about songs that make us cry that brings us so much satisfaction? Why do we feel at peace when we hear music that stirs melancholic emotions? The connection between music and our brain is closer than many realize, and there is a psychology to music that most overlook. A greater psychological understanding of music can help us unpack the fascinating connections like the pleasure of listening to sad music. And in this article, we explore the psychology behind why we love crying to sad songs and the peculiar paradox of enjoying inherently melancholic music.
The Curious Case of The Sadness Paradox
To be sad is to be void of happiness. It is to be in a negative emotional state, a state that most would argue is undesirable. So then, why do many enjoy listening to somber, sad music? The act of putting on a melancholic record or falling asleep to gloomy songs for enjoyment seems to contradict itself. This contradiction has puzzled the minds of psychologists and scientists alike, and experts have coined the peculiar anomaly the “sadness paradox” (1). Simply put, the paradox suggests that some people find joy from listening to woeful music.
Researchers continue to explore how humans interact with and react to music, with no simple answer to the sadness paradox available to explain the curious case. Diversity of cultures, exposure to musical genres at a young age, and personal preferences all play a role in why individuals enjoy the music that they do. Australian psychologist Sandra Garrido states that “dissociation, absorption, fantasy proneness, empathy, and rumination” also serve a considerable role in one’s taste for specific types of music (2).
That said, there is a growing understanding of the link between feelings of nostalgia and the enjoyment of sad music. Sad music is argued to be a powerful trigger of satisfying nostalgic emotions, and an article published by Psychology Today reports that “Such reflective revisiting of nostalgic memories may enhance mood, especially if the memories are related to pivotal and meaningful moments in life” (3).
The Benefits of Listening to Sad Music
Believe it or not, researchers claim that there are several benefits of listening to sad music. Beyond personal enjoyment of sorrowful songs, individuals can experience any number of the following benefits when listening to music that may stir sad emotions:
Helps People Deal With Grief
Grief is a complex emotion that individuals typically suffer from following the loss of a loved one. The complexity of grief is still studied closely, and a powerful model that we have to understand the process of grief is referred to as “The Five Stages of Grief” (4). While this model helps us understand the process of emotional reconciliation with grief and tragedies, it does not provide answers to resolve a deep state of grief. Instead, it has encouraged the development of strategies to manage feelings of grief.
One such strategy is ensuring that the body receives enough of the right substances to trigger positive chemical changes, that in turn boost one’s mood and feelings of happiness. Products like Neurexil™ by Approved Science® contain essential ingredients that elevate one’s mood and help the brain regulate feelings of happiness.
Supplements are not the only beneficial way of supporting the grieving process. Studies show that listening to sad music promotes the production of prolactin, a versatile hormone whose activity is linked to reducing stress, increasing feelings of pleasure, and regulating mood (5). According to behavioral economist Shahram Heshmat in the aforementioned article published by Psychology Today, “Sad music tricks the brain into engaging a normal, compensatory response by releasing prolactin. In the absence of a traumatic event, the body is left with a pleasurable mix of opiates with nowhere else to go”.
Encourages Individuals to be More Empathetic
There is a growing belief that individuals who enjoy sad music are more empathetic than others. The hypothesis is built around the idea that people who like to listen to sorrowful music are able to understand and engage with the complex emotional nuances of sad music. This theory does raise a few questions, though. How do empathetic people, who feel emotions more deeply, feel joy from music that is inherently sad?
According to a study on the “paradox of pleasurable sadness”, “…sadness elicited by music arises through emotional contagion, and that the pleasure elicited by music occurs in response to our perception of the beauty of the music. As these two mechanisms occur concurrently, it is possible to experience pleasurable sadness when we listen to sad music” (6). Shahram Heshmat adds to this theory that “Sad music can be experienced as an imaginary friend who provides support and empathy after the experience of a social loss. The listener enjoys the mere presence of a virtual person, represented by the music, who is in the same mood and can help cope with sad feelings”.
Can Support People Suffering From Depression
A recent study reports that people suffering from depression and other conditions that affect one’s mood may prefer sad music (7). The study suggests that the melancholic mood, music, and lyrics of sad songs that make people cry helped individuals in states of depression feel more relaxed.
The Risk of Listening to Somber Music When You Are Sad
While this paradox is fascinating and affects the brains of millions of music listeners around the world, it is certainly not the case for everyone. In fact, scientists believe that sad songs may trigger painful memories among certain individuals. Furthermore, a large-scale survey pointed out that far from everyone finds the same satisfaction from listening to melancholic music (8).
Henna-Riikka Peltola claims that “A large number of people also associated sad music with painful experiences. Such intense experiences seemed to be mentally and even physically straining, and thus far from pleasurable”. The study also showcases that negative emotions linked to sad music were more prominently experienced by women and younger participants of the survey. Further conclusions revealed that 10-17% of participants experienced worsened negative emotions when listening to sad songs.
Music is complex by nature, and our brain’s associations with music and its various genres or moods are even more complex. Scientists and researchers continue to explore the link between music and our emotions, notably analyzing what is dubbed the “sadness paradox”. Studies attempt to understand why some people love crying to sad songs and others feel heightened feelings of sadness when listening to melancholic music.
There is no clear answer at this time, but the growing reports and surveys help us paint a clearer picture of the ways in which individuals respond to sad songs, whether or not there are any benefits to listening to sad songs, and if there are risks for certain individuals. While listening to songs that make you cry can help you deal with grief, be more empathetic, and reduce feelings of depression, they may also make you feel worse negative emotions. Everyone is different and will react to somber music differently. For this reason, you should monitor your emotions when listening to songs that make you cry and make an informed decision on whether it is good for your personal mental health rather than taking scientific survey results as conclusive evidence.