Good Question

Why Do You Like Sad Songs and Movies?

‘Poignant’ media may help us find answers to life’s big questions

Photo by Jace & Afsoon on Unsplash

On my 13th or 14th birthday, I can’t remember which, my dad gave me a boombox and some CDs.

The CDs were Neil Young’s Harvest, and greatest-hits collections from the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, and the Steve Miller Band. He told me he’d picked these because they were some of his old favorites — part of the soundtrack of his life in the late 1960s and ’70s when he’d lived in Northern California and Oregon. Even before I’d listened to them, I liked them because he liked them.

I especially liked the Neil Young. It hooked me from the first plodding notes of its wistful opening track. That song, “Out on the Weekend,” has helped me through some stuff. Even now, I hear it and become that guy from Seinfeld — the one who gets a thousand-yard stare whenever he listens to “Desperado.”

Last year, while I was working on a piece about the psychological benefits of music, I read a study titled “Why Do Depressed People Prefer Sad Music?”

Published in the journal Emotion in 2020, the study replicated some older research that found people with major depressive disorder show a preference for music that reflects their mood. “Our results raise the question of why might depressed people be drawn to music that is sad and low energy?” the study’s authors wrote. “There can be two possible explanations.”

The first, they said, is that the sonic qualities of sad music may be calming — as in, sad music may reduce stress. “Sad and low energetic music tends to be flowing and have slow tempo… which might be appealing if depressed people seek calmness,” they wrote. The second explanation involved what they termed “emotional inertia.” People who feel sad may gravitate toward music that mirrors their emotional state — an impulse the study authors described as potentially “maladaptive” because it may reinforce or even increase a person’s sadness.

To my surprise, they did not explore the possibility that somber music may offer something deeper or more profound to a person in pain — or, for that matter, to a person not in pain. Throughout their paper, they treat a preference for melancholy music as paradoxical, as though people with depression should rightfully be force-feeding themselves peppy music in order to effect an emotional U-turn.

Even when their own data revealed that people with depression felt better after listening to sad music, the researchers mostly chalked this up to the music’s ability to calm and reduce stress. (I emailed the corresponding author for an interview, but never heard back.)

I’ve been thinking about that study for the last year. The more I’ve thought about it, the more it seems to exemplify a weakness of contemporary psychology, which is its tendency — not universal, but common — to apply overly simplistic labels like “positive” or “negative” to the messy, contradictory, often-ineffable qualities of emotional experience.

One of the gifts of music and other types of art is that they do just the opposite; rather than reduce, they deepen and expand.

“It’s absolutely possible to feel good about feeling sad sometimes. Our emotions are much richer than some of these blunt terms we use.”

I went looking for a truer examination of “sad” music’s role in our lives, and I found it in some of the writing of Mary Beth Oliver, PhD, a professor of media studies at Penn State University.

“When we watch something or listen to something that undeniably does make us feel sad at some level, it’s not like we’re only seeking to feel sad,” Oliver told me when I spoke with her. “I think we’re trying to have a greater insight into the bigger questions — the purpose of life, or of human virtue.”

Rather than “sad,” she said she prefers terms like “meaningful” or “poignant” or “bittersweet.” When life is challenging, these types of media can help us work through what we’re feeling, or even help us to feel okay about not feeling okay. “It’s absolutely possible to feel good about feeling sad sometimes,” she said. “Our emotions are much richer than some of these blunt terms we use.”

Poignant songs (or books or movies or art ) can also help us feel connected to one another.

I can listen to a song composed and performed by strangers that manages to express exactly what I’m feeling. To me, that is proof that none of us is truly alone. In some ways, the solace that music provides can be even more comforting than time spent with a sympathetic friend. “Yes, it’s just like you’re saying, media can help us see how we’re not isolated,” Oliver said. “We’re all part of something shared, something bigger.”

I found another helpful insight in a 2011 paper in the Journal of Communication. That paper explored the difference between what its authors termed media “enjoyment” and media “appreciation.”

Enjoyment, they wrote, is the simple, immediate, “lower-order” appeal of something a person finds pleasurable — whether it’s a song or a bite of food. Appreciation scratches a different kind of itch. Borrowing a quote from some earlier research, they wrote that appreciation involves “grappling with questions of life’s purpose in a way that is guided by wisdom and insight.”

For me, that nails it. There are songs I enjoy in a pleasantly shallow, straightforward kind of way. And there are songs I appreciate because they shine a light on something important that I feel to be true, but that involves some work on my part — some contemplation, or an effortful tying together of my life’s experiences. As the philosopher Hegel wrote, true art “reveals to consciousness the deepest interests of humanity.”

When I spoke with Oliver, this enjoyment/appreciation distinction came up. We discussed how so much of the cultural messaging we get these days seems to prioritize enjoyment — feeling “good” or “happy” or “positive” — while ignoring, or even pathologizing, moods or mental processes that are more complex or challenging.

“People put such a simplistic spin on these things, but even when we’re feeling sad, we’re processing stuff and growing and gaining insights, not just dumping tears in a jar,” she said.

“I do think some media encourages us more than others to get into this level of contemplativeness,” she added. “And that’s beautiful.”

Thank you for reading Good Question. Each week in this space, I’ll explore a tricky or intriguing health question with the help of one or two experts. If you’d like to suggest a topic, please email me at goodhealthquestion@gmail.com.

I write about health and science. I live in Detroit with my wife and kids. I’m trying to learn German, but my progress so far is nicht gut.

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