Experts argue that sad music has the potential to create a sense of connection in a similar manner to having a conversation.
Listening to sad music can have a positive effect on an individual’s mood by fostering a renewed feeling of connectedness, a recent research study has found.
Regardless of one’s preferred genre – whether it’s hip-hop, country, rock, or jazz – music has the power to influence emotions and overall state of mind, the study said.
This influence is particularly evident in the case of sad music, however, according to the study.
Various elements of a song, such as a tempo, musical mode, choice of instruments, and dynamics, can evoke negative emotions in listeners, as explained by Tara Venkatesan, a cognitive scientist at Oxford University and an operatic soprano, during an interview with Health.
However, the Journal of Aesthetic Education recently published a study in which Venkatesan participated, suggesting that while listening to sad music may indeed induce feelings of sadness, it can also have a positive impact on an individual’s mood, enabling them to experience a sense of connection with others.
“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 said, as quoted by Health.
“And it’s that sense of connection, not necessarily the experience of sadness itself, which is what makes listening to sad music really great!” Venkatesan added.
The researchers put forward a hypothesis suggesting that individuals appreciate sad music for similar reasons as they appreciate sad conversations, which was because it creates a genuine sense of connection.
To illustrate, Venkatesan provided an example where someone shares their painful experience of a devastating breakup.
A listener who had been through something similar may empathise and feel sadness in line with the emotions of devastation and loneliness expressed by the speaker.
However, as the conversation progressed, the listener will get a sense of deeper meaning in the interaction, leading to a unique sense of connection with the speaker.
The research team conducted a study consisting of two parts to demonstrate how sad music can similarly evoke a feeling of connection.
In the initial phase of their study, the researchers aimed to demonstrate that emotional expression is an intrinsic and significant aspect of music.
The researchers provided approximately 400 participants with descriptions of four distinct songs, which were as follows:
- 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”
The participants were tasked with ranking the songs based on their alignment with the essence of “what music is all about”.
The findings revealed that the participants placed greater value on emotional expression rather than technical proficiency when evaluating their song preferences.
Emotionally evocative songs, even if they exhibited lower technical quality, were chosen more frequently.
In the second phase of the experiment, a separate group of 450 participants was asked to rate their level of connectedness while listening to music or engaging in conversations that expressed 72 different emotions. These emotions encompassed a wide range, including inspiration, love, sadness, contempt, and more.
The results indicated that the emotions which fostered a sense of connection in conversations were also the emotions that were prominently expressed in the highly rated songs, aligning with the concept of “what music is all about”. These emotions included sadness, love, joy, loneliness, and sorrow.
Participants expressed that songs which conveyed emotions of sadness, such as suffering and despair, may not be enjoyable to listen to. However, they still encapsulated the fundamental nature of music and facilitated highly connected conversations.
“In other words, regardless of whether we enjoy sad music, we value sad music because it creates a sense of connection,” Venkatesan said.
Previous studies have indicated that individuals often listen to sad music without any specific motivation other than their personal affinity for the music or the artist.
A study in 2014 revealed that nearly one-third of the participants reported listening to sad music even when they were in a positive mood.
Whether or not sad music induces sadness in an individual varies depending on their personal experiences, according to Shannon Bennett, who serves as the site clinical director for NewYork-Presbyterian’s Center for Youth Mental Health.
A person, for instance, may experience feelings of sadness upon hearing a specific song due to its association with a particular memory. As our emotions and memories are closely intertwined, listening to a song that triggers a specific memory can evoke sadness within us, the study said.
“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 importantly what we do with it.”
This corresponds to a study conducted in 2016, which revealed that individuals who listen to sad music may perpetuate cycles of negative thinking and tend to ruminate on sad memories or negative thoughts, the Health study laid out.
The experience of music and our emotional response to it are subjective and individualised.
Although sad music typically evokes feelings of sadness, it can elicit a range of emotions depending on an individual’s mental health state, as Venkatesan explained. Previous research has identified three primary categories of emotional experiences associated with sad music: grief, melancholia, and bittersweet sorrow.
“While grief consisted mainly of negative emotions like despair, both melancholia and sweet sorrow consisted of more mixed emotions like longing and nostalgia and even positive emotions like comfort and pleasure,” she said.
Bennett emphasised that sad music does not necessarily lead to feelings of sadness in the listener as it could rather have a positive impact on the listener’s mental health.
“Music can be a way to practice just sitting with a feeling that sometimes is harder to sit with and that is actually emotionally very helpful,” she 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.”
Venkatesan maintained that sad music has the potential to create a sense of connection in a similar manner as a sincere conversation does.
Certain studies propose that listening to sad music creates a sense of “emotional communion”, where listeners share in the feelings of sadness expressed by the singer or composer, according to Venkatesan.
This can act as a form of virtual connection, offering a sense of acceptance, and understanding, and alleviating feelings of loneliness.
Other research also suggests that listening to sad songs enables individuals to connect with themselves and reflect on their own emotional experiences, which aids in mood regulation.
Venkatesan highlighted that music, in general, has a profound impact on our brains and physiology, thus influencing our mood. Backing that, studies indicate that relaxing music can reduce levels of salivary cortisol and psychological stress, indicating decreased stress and improved regulation when responding to stressors.
Bennett further emphasised that just as a sad song can evoke a sad emotional state, music can also be used to elicit positive emotions. People have the ability to choose positive behaviours that can steer them towards experiencing positive emotions.
“My hope is that this research will help people just recognise that feeling sad is okay and also that there are things that we can do to help us move out of that feeling,” Bennett said.