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If being sad is “bad”, then why is there sad music?

sad songs

We tell children not to look so sad. We tell adults to wipe that sad look off their face and smile. We even worry that if you are sad too long, you might need medical attention. Yet, for most of us, when life gets you down, you put on some sad music. So if sadness is such a negative, why do we spend our money and time wallowing in these sad tunes?

Well according to a new study, sad music trigger emotions and experiences beyond sadness. The study demonstrates that for many individuals, listening to sad music can instead lead to beneficial emotional effects.

“The aim of this study was to provide a better understanding of why people engage with sad music,” co-author, Liila Taruffi said.

The study looked at responses from 772 participants to an online survey; they were a multi-ethnic sample covering diverse age groups responding to questions exploring their experiences listing to sad music.

The researchers then looked at principles that underlie the evocation of sadness by music and the rewarding aspects of music-evoked sadness, among other factors.

In total, the survey featured 76 items. Participants were instructed to complete the survey individually and in a quiet environment without listening to any music.

The results were interesting to say the least, nostalgia rather than sadness is the most frequent emotion evoked by sad music. Correspondingly, memory was rated as the most important principle through which sadness is evoked. Finally, the trait empathy contributes to the evocation of sadness via contagion, appraisal, and by engaging social functions.

The present findings indicate that emotional responses to sad music are multifaceted, are modulated by empathy, and are linked with a multidimensional experience of pleasure revealing that listening to sad music can lead to beneficial emotional effects such as regulation of negative emotion and mood as well as consolation. Such beneficial emotional effects constitute the prime motivations for engaging with sad music in everyday life.

Another interesting observation by the team was that the beneficial emotional effects of sad music may be enhanced in emotionally unstable individuals, the results suggest that they use sad music to regulate emotion. They had similarly stated in the abstract that “appreciation of sad music follows a mood-congruent fashion and is greater among individuals with high empathy and low emotional stability.

“The results strongly highlight that, 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,” Taruffi said.

So in the end, maybe being sad isn’t so bad at all. After all, we can’t be happy all the time.

lie down

Taruffi L, & Koelsch S (2014). The paradox of music-evoked sadness: an online survey. PloS one, 9 (10) PMID: 25330315


2 responses

  1. I think our mentality of denying sadness is a western thing. You see it especially with the emergence of these antidepressant commercials. Life is about dichotomy as I see it, and being sad also helps us to appreciate our happy moments!

    I love that last graphic 😀 Been there done that got a soggy pillow!


    November 9, 2014 at 10:45 am

    • Haha thanks, me too. I agree it’s a western thing, I think being sad is just looked down on, but expressing emotions should be a good thing, even the ones that make us uncomfortable.


      November 9, 2014 at 11:15 am

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