Why do we like sad Music?


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.

— — —

Huron, D. (2011). Why is sad music pleasurable? A possible role for prolactin. Musica Scientiae, 15, 146-158. doi: 10.1177/1029864911401171

Levitin, D.J. (2008). The World in Six Songs. London: Aurum Press

Thompson, W.T. (2009). Music, Thought, and Feeling: Understanding the Psychology of Music. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Van den Tol, A.J.M., Edwards, J. (in press). Exploring the rationale for choosing to listen to sad music when feeling sad. Psychology of Music. doi: 10.1177/0305735611430433


  1. Because it’s a release of emotion — like crying. Often we are suppressing all or part of bad feelings; music helps us get in touch with them…and hopefully overcome them and move on. Also most people don’t play sad music all day long or for days on end. They play it for a limited time so they’re allowing themselves to release their sad emotion within a limited time frame; once that is done they can go on with the business of living.

    1. I agree with you, Bob, that many people use sad music in this way. What I was wondering is how this works.

      I don’t fully buy the catharsis theory, i.e. that there is a limited amount of sadness in all of us and that using it up leaves only neutral or positive emotions. Your ‘release of emotion’ seems to hint and such a catharsis. The reason why I am not buying into catharsis in this context is because some psychological disorders (notably major depression) appear to be based on an infinite amount of extreme sadness. The maddening thing about these disorders is that it just doesn’t stop, there is no release, no moving on.

      This post offers three alternative accounts of a mechanism by which sad music may gain its appeal. Time will tell whether they lie close to the truth.

  2. I think it’s cathartic for most people; most people are not suffering from severe depression. And I’m not saying that listening to a couple of sad songs is going to release all the sad feelings a person has within them about all sad things they’ve ever experienced in their life. But it’s a release of emotion which are being felt in that moment. To compare a common reaction to the reaction of people suffering a very particular and extreme illness is like saying that soft music, warm tea, comfortable clothes, and a Valium isn’t relaxing because people who suffer from extreme nervousness don’t experience the same relaxation.

  3. what i really like is the googlies of a rainbow they help the frosted pigeons and when i bury my dirty underwear i get to eat the pumpkin sausages of jellyland and i do not know where this feeling comes from but it is like eating fried twinkies at midnight when the sun shines high in the sky on a hot winter day in the middle of july when all the choo choo trains go swimming in my mommy’s piano

  4. Very interesting observation…I wonder whether another dimension might be the perceived emotional range of sadness as being much greater than that of happiness…Mozart’s obsession with G Minor as an example.

    1. Hi Bendehaldevang
      I don’t know the answer , but I have been wondering the same hypothesis myself.
      Mozart did focus on very specific feelings of grief in his songs, although I didn’t know he was
      obsessed with G Minor.

      And certainly when we are engulfed in grief it seems the greatness and most
      deadly emotion ever.

      Could a neuroscientist find a way to measure the intensity of our emotions and
      our capacity for it ?

      And since we all have different DNA and different life experiences , even if we all started out with a similar limit for our happy and grieving emotions and tendencies or no limit at all , wouldn’t our own experiences change our actual biological capacity for emotion not just our perceived capacity of it , which may or may not be our limit.

      There has definitely been tests on this.

      But what I am sure of is our ability to adapt.
      Does our emotional environment that is almost always beyond our control,
      a real factor in changing our
      actual capacity of emotion ( if we have it)?
      And if some people have a capacity maybe others don’t.

      I wonder how my DNA code for emotions has changed because of my life experiences.

      I wonder what in my DNA profile makes me like raced up
      nightcore music , risky impulses , and violent movies.
      We affect our environment and our environment effects us.
      So assuming our environment could possibly change the
      emotional capacity someone has or doesn’t have
      and this happened on a cellular level before
      we knowingly or unknowingly changed our environment
      this would be a good test for neuroscientists;

      Three people with extremely similar DNA
      were born at the same time (triplets for example).

      They grow up in three extremely
      different emotional environments.

      Their emotional growth and capacity
      and is tested at birth ( although that would
      probably be inhumane for a baby subject)
      and at other extremely emotionally challenging

      I am a triplet and each of us grew up in
      a very different emotional environment,
      and have grown into people with very different
      personalities . Since we all started out with similar
      DNA this would a convent starting point for
      “normal” and then find the “deviations.”

  5. Some other research indicates that for some people it is part of a healthy processing of emotions (catharsis, cognitive reappraisal etc..) which can help people to cope with negative emotions they are experiencing, whereas for other people it can be a sort of ‘ruminating’ with music… an unhealthy focus on the past or on negative feelings which is part of impairments in mood regulation capacities associated with mood disorders like depression… see the extensive research by Garrido & Schubert.

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