Why do some of us listen to sad music when we’re sad, and others happy music?
It’s been a difficult day at work. I’ve kicked off my shoes to discover one of my toes has broken through my last pair of decent socks, and I’ve received my sixth text of the month telling me that my bank balance is low. I need some cheering up, and glance over to my CD singles collection, the contents of which were a staple diet of any child pre-noughties, for some therapy. Shall I listen to Dido’s ‘White Flag’, or a bit of Queen’s ‘I Want to Break Free’? The author Guilluame Appollinaire speculated that ‘joy came always after pain’ – so can listening to sad music hasten the arrival of happiness?
Two researchers have published reports in recent years discussing the motivations people have for choosing the music they listen to when they’re feeling low. Annemieke Van den Tol and Jane Edwards believe that people listen to melancholy tunes for four reasons; to find connections, to listen to the message, because of the high aesthetic value of the songs, or for a memory trigger. Interestingly, the memory trigger effect does not enhance people’s moods, so listening to that one song that reminds you of your ex might not be such a good idea. This also means that those flashback montages on X Factor may be even more cringe worthy/tear-inducing for the failed contestants than they are for us as an audience.
Additionally, Van den Tol and Edwards hypothesise that beautiful music is easier to concentrate on, making music an ample distraction from life’s difficulties. Almost too perfect a distraction, as listening to prepossessing music can cause some of us to avoid these difficulties.
An easy assumption would be that, instead of listening to tear-inducing, heart achingly sad tunes, we should all start tuning into some cheery songs. A study conducted in 2013 by the University of Missouri indicated that listening to happy music will only cheer you up if you actively want to feel better about yourself – so Pharrell’s ‘Happy’ can only take you so far.
Music can touch our souls with such an unflinching hand that some music has been deemed too sad to broadcast. ‘Tell Laura I Love Her’, a single from 1960 written by Ray Peterson, was banned by the BBC for its morbid nature. The lyrics reveal the tale of a young man who enters a race to raise money for his girlfriend’s wedding ring and is subsequently killed. Despite the ban, the song shot up the charts. Sad music sells, much like bad news sells. Last year, a Russian news site claimed that it lost two thirds of its readership after publishing only positive news stories for one day.
Perhaps one of the reasons we as humans are drawn to creative portrayals of sadness is because there can be great beauty in sadness. Perhaps this is why films such as ‘Million Dollar Baby’ and ‘Seven Pounds’ prove so popular. Films, art and songs can capture an abstract sadness which is still easily relatable for individuals, and most people simply desire to be understood. Music can provide that empathetic ear sometimes lacking from our friends, creating a sense of belonging; a recognition of an emotion in a lyric that makes us feel less alone.
It appears that we need to listen to melancholy music with an air of caution, and remember that even though we all need to wallow in our misery every once in a while, it’s not healthy to dwell on these feelings for too long. Though sad music may be beautiful, it is much like the Greek Sirens. You might not be enchanted by the music of a naked sea-lady on a rock, but you might just cause yourself more misery than you bargained for by indulging in the sad music. That said, an occasional blast of Heartbreak Hotel won’t do any harm…
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