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The Cathartic Nature of Sad Music

11 Jul, 2016 03:41 AM

Popular music tends to fall into two wide (and generalised) categories): it is either the kind of music you want to dance to, and listen to when you are partying with your friends or, it is soulful and heart-breaking ballads that make you want to think, reminisce about loves that you have lost, and have a good cry.

There is nothing wrong with crying when listening to sad music: in fact, it is a common and natural response. What you may not realise however is that crying in these circumstances can actually be cathartic, helping to stabilise your emotions and, ultimately release hormones that make you feel happier and more well-balanced. This is supported by research from a study into our complicated emotional responses to sad music, conducted by researchers at the Free University of Berlin in Germany. They interviewed 772 music lovers from around the world and found that rather than making them feel exclusively sad, listening to sad music also made them feel nostalgic, tender and peaceful.  The researchers concluded that “For many individuals, listening to sad music can actually lead to beneficial emotional effects…  “Music-evoked sadness can be appreciated not only as an aesthetic, abstract reward, but [it] also plays a role in well-being, by providing consolation as well as regulating negative moods and emotions.”

The Mood of the Audience

It is true that people tend to listen to sad music when they are feeling sad themselves. However, that doesn’t mean that listening to those designated ‘sad songs’ will make them sadder. In fact, it may help to regulate your mood, put your own sad emotions back into perspective and, ultimately, you may find that you get to the end of your favourite sad album feeling happier, more calm, and generally in a much better mood.  Thus the intended emotions depicted in the song are not necessarily reflected in the mood of their audience.

It is no coincidence that many of the best musicians, composers and song writers are no strangers to sadness themselves: whether they have suffered from the personal tragedy of loss, or feel a sense of wider sadness in the world (caused by hyper-sensitivity, depression, or mental illness) many musical artists will report that they understand sadness and pain. Many musical performers also succumb to the hell and subsequent sadness of alcoholism and substance abuse, which is probably why they have such a natural affinity with sadness, and why it is a common theme in their work. It is widely reported that writing about sad experiences can be cathartic. In fact, individuals that indulge in memoir writing and keeping a diary are found to be happier overall than individuals who don’t write down their thoughts and feelings and ‘writing therapy’ is a widely acknowledged and very effective treatment for individuals suffering from depression, anxiety, or overcoming substance abuse problems. Therefore it could well be that for the artists involved, writing their sad songs is actually a cathartic act, designed to help them to overcome their sad and negative emotions and break through to a place that is healthier and happier.

An Important Form of Self-Expression

For adolescents and adults experiencing emotional or mental health disconnections, sad music can be appealing because it provides a way of verbalising emotions they are experiencing but simply don’t have  the vocabulary to express themselves. This is also common as a way of self-expression amongst teenager: choosing to listen to sad or angry music (for example) as a way of expressing, in a non-verbal way, the way that they feel towards their parents, their peers, or the world in general. However that doesn’t mean that those individuals are feeling sad or angry: by expressing those emotions through their musical choices, they are often able to relieve themselves of their stress and tension, meaning that they end their listening experience feeling calm, heard, understood and under control

No matter what your reason for choosing to listen to a sad tune or two, there is nothing more cathartic than listening to a truly sad song, so why not turn on your stereo and listen to some of your favourites. However, don’t be surprised if you find yourself feeling happy and calm, and not sad at all, at the end of your session. 


- Article from Gemma Galway 

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