But I’m a creep.
I’m a weirdo.
What the hell am I doing here?
I don’t belong here.
Why would anyone want to listen to this?
Radiohead’s song Creep is not the exception in being a heartbreaking but nonetheless successful song. According to Wikipedia , of the ten best-selling music singles ever several are clearly sad songs: Elton John’s Candle in the Wind, The Ink Spot’s If I didn’t care, or Kenny Roger’s Lady. Music does influence one’s mood. For that reason some psychological experiments even use it as a mood induction technique. But given that people generally strive for happiness, why would anyone willingly opt for sad music?
This is exactly what Van den Tol and Edwards asked people online (article in press at Psychology of Music). The most important function they identified in the responses was (re-)experiencing affect, i.e. listening to sad music in order to induce ‘sadness, loss or grief, and occasionally other negative feelings such as disappointment and anger’ (p. 10). Other functions were also mentioned but the take-home message is that, usually, sad music is chosen because it makes people – who are often already sad – feel sad. Very puzzling.
Even more puzzling is that these objectively negative feelings were only rarely reported as being experienced in a negative way. As if music-induced sadness is not quite like real sadness. Van den Tol and Edwards interpret their results as sad music being a sort of self-regulation tool. But how does the tool work?
No one really knows. Still, there are some ideas out there.
1) The safe distance theory
Thompson (2009; see Schubert, 1996) claims that musical sadness is unlike real sadness because, well, it isn’t actually real. It is without consequence. Therefore, one can explore a feeling without becoming engulfed in it. According to this hypothesis one can listen to Radiohead’s Creep and feel like a complete loser without actually having to be one.
It is difficult to test this because one would have to distinguish between participants’ safely distant sadness and their real sadness. I doubt that any ethical board would allow a researcher to deliberately sadden a participant for real.
2) The shared pain theory
Levitin (2008) claims that musical sadness serves to ‘[bring] us through stages of feeling understood, feeling less alone in the world, hopeful that if someone else recovered so will we’ (p. 135). Like in most of his book, Levitin sees music as a social tool. On this account, the difference between musical sadness and real sadness lies in the former one being shared while the latter one is more private. Elton John’s Candle in the Wind is a good example. Released following Lady Diana’s death, it perhaps helped people worldwide to share an emotion which they otherwise would have had to deal with by themselves.
3) The Prolactin theory
Prolactin is a hormone associated with feelings of tranquillity, calmness, well-being, or consolation. Huron (2011) suggests that the body uses it to counteract grief and thus avoid descending into an uncontrollably depressive episode. Such hormonal counter-measures to negative environmental inputs are also found for physical pain. Physical pain is reduced by endorphins. Such a bodily mechanism can be exploited – as when heroin addicts fool the brain’s response to pain. Huron (2011) proposes that sad music can activate the counter-measures to actual sadness – i.e. prolactin production – without any real sadness being present. One gets the hormone’s consoling effect without the sadness and might thus actually enjoy it.
On should not forget that -even though it is intuitive – Huron’s Prolactin theory is not supported by a great deal of experimental evidence. But at least it is straight forward to test.
Of course, all three theories could be true. The puzzle of people’s tendency to often listen to sad music could have to do with the safe distance between musically induced sadness and one’s true emotions. This distance may allow prolactin to have an unusually positive effect because it is not balanced by the real sadness it is designed to counteract. On top of that, a more cognitive appreciation of sharing this experience with other people may aid the process. Targeted research is needed in order to test these theories.
So, people do indeed strive for happiness and therefore enjoy energetic, upbeat music. However, when times get rough it can seem better to switch gears and deal with the sadness first before moving on. It appears like this is where sad music could come in. According to the three aforementioned theories, gloomy music not so much leads to bad moods. It is the other way around. Bad moods require sad music.