Sad Girl Playlists Aren’t Just Trendy—Study Finds Sad Music Can Boost Your Mental Health

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Fact checked by Nick Blackmer

  • New research suggests that listening to sad music can positively impact a person’s mood based on the sense of connectedness it provides.

  • Experts cite three responses to sad music: grief, melancholia, and sweet sorrow.

  • Experts agree that music of all kinds can play a role in people’s mental health and mood, but music is a personal, unique experience for each listener.

A new study found that listening to sad music can positively impact a person’s mood, based on a revived sense of connectedness.

When you’re at a party or social gathering you may queue an upbeat song, such as “That’s What I Like” by Bruno Mars. On other days, you might just want to listen to something that’s a bit more gloomy and relatable like Taylor Swift’s “Anti-Hero.”

Whatever music you enjoy listening to most, whether that be hip-hop, country, rock, or jazz, it can oftentimes influence your mood and feelings.

This is especially true when it comes to sad music. Various features of a song, including tempo, mode, instrument choice, and dynamics, can prompt negative emotions in listeners, Tara Venkatesan, PhD, a cognitive scientist at Oxford University and an operatic soprano, told Health.

However, a new study published in the Journal of Aesthetic Educationwhich Venkatesan was a part of, suggests that while listening to sad music can certainly make people feel sad, doing so may also impact a person’s mood positively and allow them to feel a sense of connectedness.

“Our main point is that the value of sad music lies in its ability to create a sense of connection, regardless of whether it actually evokes sadness in the listener,” Venkatesan clarified. “And it’s that sense of connection, not necessarily the experience of sadness itself, which is what makes listening to sad music really great!”

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Why Do People Love Sad Music?

The researchers hypothesized that people value sad music for the same reasons they might value sad conversations—a sense of genuine connection.

For example, when someone tells you about their horrible break up, you might feel sad yourself because of how genuinely devastated and lonely they are feeling, Venkatesan explained. However, as you continue talking, you might feel like there’s something meaningful about that interaction and connecting with this person in a unique way.

The research team demonstrated sad music’s ability to provide a sense of connection in two parts.

In the first part, the researchers wanted to show that emotional expression is a characteristic value of what music is all about. They gave nearly 400 participants a description of four different songs including:

  • A song that “conveys deep and complex emotions” but is “technically very flawed”

  • A song that is “technically flawless” but “does not convey deep or complex emotions”

  • A song that is “deeply emotional” and “technically flawless”

  • A song that is both unemotional and “technically flawed”

Participants were asked to rank songs based on which pieces embodied “what the music is all about.”

They found that participants valued emotional expression more than technical proficiency when reviewing their song choices. Highly emotional songs, even of lesser technical value, were chosen at a much higher rate.

For the second part of their experiment, the authors asked 450 new participants to rate how connected they felt when listening to music or participating in conversations that expressed 72 different emotions, including inspiration, love, sadness, contempt, etc.

They found that the emotions that make people feel connected in conversation are also the emotions whose expressions in music are matched to “what music is all about” highly rated songs: sadness, love, joy, loneliness, and sorrow.

Furthermore, participants said that songs expressing sad emotions like suffering and despair are unpleasant to listen to but still capture the essence of what music is all about and make for high-connection conversations.

“In other words, regardless of whether we enjoy sad music, we value sad music because it creates a sense of connection,” Venkatesan explained.

Other research has suggested that people listen to sad music for no particular motivation other than the fact that they like this music or bands. In fact, a 2014 study highlights that nearly a third of participants listened to sad music when they were in a positive mood.

Does Listening to Sad Music Evoke Sadness?

Whether or not sad music makes a person feel sad depends on each individual and their experience, Shannon Bennett, PhD, site clinical director for NewYork-Presbyterian’s Center for Youth Mental Health, told Health.

For example, a person might feel sad when they hear a certain song because that song might be connected to a particular memory. Since our emotions and memories are very connected, when we listen to a song that evokes a certain memory, it can cause us to feel sad.

“If a piece of music is connected to either of those experiences that could then bring on a real feeling of sadness,” Bennett explained. “But that to me is a more personal experience in terms of how intense that feeling is, how long it lasts, and then most importantly what we do with it.”

This aligns with a 2016 study that found people who listen to sad music can perpetuate cycles of negative thinking and often prompt them to think about sad memories or negative thoughts.

Music, and our response to it, is a unique and personal experience.

While sad music can generally make people feel sad, depending on the mental state of an individual’s health, it can evoke other emotions as well, added Venkatesan. She cited previous research on people’s experience of sad music and noted three main categories expressed: grief, melancholia, and sweet sorrow.

“While grief consists mainly of negative emotions like despair, both melancholia and sweet sorrow consisting of more mixed emotions like longing and nostalgia and even positive emotions like comfort and pleasure,” she said.

Music and Mental Health

Bennett clarified that sad music does not automatically indicate sad emotion for the listener—it can actually impact the listener’s mental health positively.

“Music can be a way to practice just sitting with a feeling that sometimes is harder to sit with and that is actually very helpful emotionally,” he added. “We call that an emotional exposure that in fact is used in some very well-researched therapy protocols to help us to sit with emotions that we sometimes don’t want to sit with.”

Sad music can also make people feel connected in the same way a heartfelt conversation makes us feel connected, said Venkatesan. “It is very likely that the sense of connection we experience when listening to sad music has positive health benefits.”

Some studies suggest that listening to sad music creates a feeling of “emotional communion” where you share feelings of sadness with the singer or composer. Venkatesan explained that in this case, listening to sad songs may act as a form of virtual contact which can help people feel accepted, understood, and less lonely.

She added that other studies suggest that listening to sad songs allows us to connect with ourselves and reflect on our own emotional experiences which can help with mood regulation.

Venkatesan noted that music, in general, has a profound effect on our brains and physiology and therefore can also impact our mood.

For example, some research suggests that relaxing music can decrease levels of salivary cortisol and psychological stress, which is an indicator of decreased stress and better regulation when responding to a stressor.

Bennett noted in the same way that a sad song might evoke a sad emotional state, there are ways to use music to evoke a positive emotional state. There are also ways that people can choose positive behaviors that might move them in the direction of positive emotion.

Bennett concluded, “My hope is that this research will help people just recognize that feeling sad is okay and also that there are things that we can do to help us move out of that feeling.”

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Read the original article on Health.

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