In a 2018 tweet, country music star Reba McEntire said that, for her, singing sad songs “has a way of healing a situation. It gets the hurt out in the open into the light, out of the darkness.”
McEntire’s words touch on a paradox that psychology researchers have called “one of the most intriguing questions in the history of music scholarship.” Namely, why do people enjoy sad music? From Beethoven to the Beatles, many of the world’s most beloved tunes are somber. And this phenomenon is not confined to music; people have a special affection for sad movies, sorrowful literature, and other forms of melancholy artistic expression.
But why? Studies on what some researchers call “pleasurable sadness” suggest that different people enjoy sad art for different reasons. “One central mechanism that has been highlighted in multiple recent studies involves feelings of being moved or touched,” says Jonna Vuoskoski, an associate professor in the Department of Musicology at the University of Oslo in Norway.
Some of Vuoskoski’s research finds that people with high levels of empathy tend to be the most moved by sad music or films, and that this sentiment correlates with greater amusement. “The facets of empathy related to feelings of compassion and strong identification with fictional characters in books and films seem to be the best predictors of sad music enjoyment,” she says.
Her research has also found that — along with its ability to move people — somber music and other forms of art conjure emotions that many people perceive as pleasurable. In response to sad art, “nostalgia, peacefulness, and wonder were also clearly evident” and many people enjoy these emotions, she and her study colleagues wrote.
Another explanation is that experiencing something sad can lessen the sorrow a person is feeling. A 2019 study from the University of South Florida explored the musical tastes of people diagnosed with major depressive disorder. It’s well documented that people who are depressed often gravitate toward “sad stimuli,” the authors said, including music. Some researchers have argued that this is a…