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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 kind of maladaptive attraction that sustains or heightens people’s feelings of woe. But the USF team disagreed with this theory. “The strong appeal of sad music to people with [depression] may be related to its calming effects rather than any desire to increase or maintain sad feelings,” they wrote.
“An artwork or song that a person can relate to can provide comfort without the baggage of social interaction with another human being.”
Others who study the appeal of sad music say listening to it may be therapeutic for people dealing with grief or loss. “We have built-in psychological, hormonal, and physiological systems that facilitate dealing with [these emotions],” says Tuomas Eerola, a professor of music cognition at Durham University in the UK, noting that these systems are stimulated by music.
While talking to a well-intentioned friend or family member can provide comfort and a shoulder to cry on, there’s arguably a deeper solace to be found in a break-up song, Eerola says. “The fact that the music or art is non-interactive is actually an advantage in situations of loss and sadness since there is no judgement, no probing. An artwork or song that a person can relate to can provide comfort without the baggage of social interaction with another human being.”
Another possible explanation for the appeal of melancholy art was examined in a 2011 study that, coincidentally, took its title from the Beatles song “Let it Be.” The study explored the process of accepting negative emotions, as opposed to trying to ignore or suppress them. “Somewhat paradoxically, avoiding negative emotional experiences may be associated with negative outcomes while accepting negative emotional experiences may be associated with positive outcomes,” the authors of the study wrote. Their research supports the idea that, for some, engaging with sad films or music may be one form of therapeutic acceptance.
A sad song, film, or other piece of art may provide a unique kind of catharsis if it holds a special place in a person’s heart. “There are plenty of studies showing how certain personally relevant pieces of music have provided comfort and solace in situations steeped with negative emotions,” Eerola says.
Rather than prolonging sorrow, sad songs and books and films seem to give people relief and pleasure — and maybe even a greater sense of emotional connection to other human beings. And who couldn’t use more of that?