home Music Why do we listen to sad music when we’re sad?

Why do we listen to sad music when we’re sad?

In August 1942, Leningrad was a broken city; its occupants were besieged, starving and dying. Hitler had chosen to hold a ball on the 9th of the month to celebrate the fall of the city. As an act of defiance, the Russians decided to hold an orchestral concert. Extra musicians even had to be flown in due to the fact that only 15 members of the Leningrad Radio Orchestra had survived the war. For the finale, the musicians chose Dmitri Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony. The piece is a whopping one hour, twenty-four minutes and fifty-eight seconds long. It is said that the desolation of the music paired with the desolation in their hearts served to bolster the spirits of the Russian people. Apparently, the “final page of the ink-written score that was used at the world premiere is smudged and run with the tears of Yevgeny Mravinsky, the conductor.” As with all pieces of music, there is a complex relationship between the emotion that the composer wants portrayed, the listener’s interpretation and the listener’s mood. In a study carried out in recent years, when the piece was played for a group of people, 91% were “fairly sure” about the emotion the piece was meant to portray but were unsure of what emotion it evoked within them. There is such a variety of responses that the same music can elicit within different people, which scientists have attempted to understand using brain scans, but we still have a long way to go in terms of actually understanding the interaction.

Even scientists don’t understand the interaction between music and our cognitive functioning, so how can we? This led me to think about that fact that we, as a society in general, tend to listen to sad songs when we’re already sad. I mean, that just seems silly really, doesn’t it? However, I’ve done some research, and we may not be so silly after all – there’s a method to our madness. Psychologists have established a number of reasons why people listen to sad music when they’re already sad. Firstly, to make a connection. We want to identify with the lyrics and use it as a method of “cognitive reappraisal” – in other words, to sort through our emotions. Secondly, this also involves seeking out a message we can relate to in the music, perhaps to feel that we are not alone in our emotions. A third reason is that we seek music with “high aesthetic value” to distract ourselves before assessing our own emotions, however, excessive use of this can lead to “avoidance” which can be detrimental to one’s mental health. Lastly, we use music as a “memory trigger” – to retrieve memories from past events. Psychologist have discovered that when used for this purpose, it seemed not to enhance mood at all.

Once our initial feeling of sadness has passed, we are more likely to shift to more uplifting music – but what about when someone is depressed? Can music help then? Every year there are over 80,000 suicides worldwide, with 15-29 year olds being particularly affected – the ages at which, generally speaking, music has the most important role. Unfortunately, certain genres of music, namely “emo” music have been associated with a number of suicides. On average, we adolescents listen to 2-3 hours of music every day, but even more so when we are distressed. Music is a kind of catharsis and medium for us to work through our sadness, which is overall actually quite a healthy emotion to feel (within reason of course). However, depression is different. Studies have shown a correlation between people with high scores in rumination (a tendency to get stuck in pattern of negativity) and feeling more depressed after listening to sad music. In contrast to this, when these same people listened to a song that makes them happy, even those with high levels of depression felt much better.

So why don’t we just listen to happy music when we’re sad? According to the study, even people who had reported feeling more depressed after listening to sad music still argued that the music helped them. This is possibly due to the fact that there still exists in our society a general lack of understanding of how behaviour affects mood. It has been proven that ruminative behaviour exacerbates depression, yet people continue to listen to sad music. Therapies have been, and are continuing to be, developed to make people aware of the effect that music can have. It is true that we should be working towards finding music that connects us to a happy time when we’re feeling down, but I’m as guilty as the next person for listening to Bon Iver and Daughter on repeat anytime I’m feeling low.

Sometimes you just need that little bit of time to wallow. The most important thing is to be aware of is the effect that music can have on your mood. Be careful not to wallow too much. After your Bon Iver binge, throw on your favourite happy song (I would 100% recommend Hey Ya! by Outkast) and I bet you will notice a shift in your mood almost immediately.