Exeter, Devon UK • Jul 19, 2024 • VOL XII

Exeter, Devon UK • [date-today] • VOL XII
Home Music Melodies for Maladies: Why We Listen to Sad Songs

Melodies for Maladies: Why We Listen to Sad Songs

Floris de Bruin explores sad music and why we listen to it.
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Melodies for Maladies: Why We Listen to Sad Songs

Source – pxfuel.com

We all do it. On darker days, we turn to that tucked away playlist containing a repertoire of tear-jerkers. We find a strange sense of comfort in our fragility, deliberately resuscitating age-old memories of our sensitive past to intensify the emotion.  

The playlist which makes me want to curl up into a ball and disappear features the otherworldly sounds of Bon Iver, the strumming of Ben Howard’s guitar and the sensitive vocals of Sufjan Stevens. They can remind me of a time when I was twelve and insecure, on the bus to my new school, worrying about whether my hair looked okay. (For the record, it didn’t – as it turns out, applying half a bottle of gel for a single use is a tad bit too much).  

Surely, the pattern of behaviour described here seems counterintuitive to the designated purpose of raising our spirits. Our response to sadness is a conscious pursuit of more acute sadness, plunging ourselves deeper into a pit of darkness. Why is it that we continue doing it, then? Do we derive some sort of gratification from our misery? 

For starters, there is a strong case to be made of the beauty of sad songs in their profound ability to make us feel. When considering what makes music sad, British composer Debbie Wiseman points towards the use of minor chords and suspended notes in creating a melancholic atmosphere. This is most strikingly recognised in classical music, for example in Samuel Barber’s ‘Adagio for Strings’ or ‘Prelude in B Minor’ by Bach, where the soft and sentimental sounds complement our mood. The ability of music to conjure up and stir our emotions is a good indication as to why we listen to it.  

This is reflected in the current music industry, where pop music has become sonically ‘sadder’ over the last thirty years according to several studies. This is evident by the prevalence of songs produced in minor keys and the decline in major key chords. While our parents would have listened to the uplifting songs of ABBA in the disco, we currently find ourselves clubbing to more sentimental songs such as ‘Better Now’ by Post Malone. Is this a troubling indication that we are troubled as a generation due to our demand for sad music?  

One way to explain the predominance and recent emergence of more melancholic sounding music would be to discuss the relationship between perceived and felt emotion. There is a stark difference in our emotional perception of music, where we may perceive something to be sad, but may not actually feel sad as a result.  

An example of this can be found in the song ‘Wicked Game’ by Chris Isaak, which we perceive to be sad based on subject area, namely unrequited love, and through sound quality. However, while we may regard this song to be sad, that does not necessarily mean that we feel sad. Instead, we may be inclined to feel romantic because of the love described, or maybe nostalgic, as it vivifies memories of past flames which didn’t quite work out.  

This goes to show that sad music does not necessarily induce sad emotions, even though it may still make us cry. In fact, the ability for music to make us cry is one of the main reasons why we feel better. As described by Glenn Schellenberg, professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, crying releases a hormone called prolactin which produces a pleasurable and comforting effect. In this way, we are inclined to regard sad music as a sort of warm blanket which we can wrap around our trembling shoulders.  

Aside from its stimulation of tears, sad songs have the additional benefit of improving our cognitive abilities. Listening to music which pierces the heart catapults us into a different world, one in which emotions reign and nothing else matters. When in this isolated state of mind, Schellenberg argues that it is during this time when we are our most realistic inner self. The onset of getting into a meditative mood is that we can think things through much more clearly than usual, improving our ability to make judgements and decisions as we feel most connected to ourselves. It also improves the retention of memory, taking us back to moments of the past previously thought lost.  

Some may be sceptical about the benefits of sad music, for after all, the gratification we derive from sentimental songs may be detrimental. This is because we find pleasure in playing the victim – listening to sad songs is a form of self-pity in which we believe ourselves to be the saddest soul to ever grace the earth.  

However, despite this view, I still believe sad music to be regenerative because it provides a space for us to feel and reflect, something infinitely human. It serves the vital function of recognising and acknowledging something we struggle to do daily, which is to identify one’s emotions. In a world where there is consistent emphasis placed on the need to be okay all the time, music breaks down those pretences by validifying what we feel. 

In this way, sad songs treat the symptom, not the cause.  

Reference: https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/p01gmhx6  

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