Sad songs are the best songs. The more wretchedly, intensely depressed the artist was when composing the song, the better, if you ask me. And I’m not alone. People generally like sad music as much as they dislike being sad, which can leave only one conclusion: Sad music doesn't necessarily make us feel sad.
Musicologists have been studying that paradox for years, and new research further confirms experts' long-held suspicion that sad music evokes just as many pleasant emotions as negative ones.
A team of researchers from the Tokyo University of the Arts played both upbeat and bummed out classical tunes to a group of volunteers and measured their reaction based on 44 specific feelings. The results, recently published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, found the sad songs conjured up a whole range of complex emotions, including positive ones.
So, research increasingly backs up what most music lovers already know to be true: that we generally feel perfectly fine, even downright swell when we listen to sad music. Why? Because it's art, not real life.
The feelings evoked by works of art aren't direct, real-world emotions, but aesthetic ones, the study found. There's a difference between emotions perceived and those actually felt. We know, logically, that a slow, soft, minor chord-filled song about heartbreak is sad, but that doesn't mean we feel it.
That explains why most fans don't sink into a pit of despair when they play an Elliott Smith album. But there's another truism about sad music, which is that it can make people feel better when they are sad.
Researchers noted this phenomenon too. They found that experiencing sadness through art—people also really like sad movies, sad plays, sad novels—can feel pleasant because it's a safe place to indulge the emotion. The artist is the one with the broken heart, not the listener. The listener is just sympathizing, feeling it vicariously through the music.
"Emotion experienced by music has no direct danger or harm unlike the emotion experienced in everyday life,” researchers wrote. “If we suffer from unpleasant emotion evoked through daily life, sad music might be helpful to alleviate negative emotion."
They note that this isn't always true. Sometimes songs will conjure up a personal memory that triggers the creation of an actual bad feeling, like lost love or death—as anyone that's found themselves unexpectedly bursting into tears over a particular lyric well knows.
But that can be a good thing, too. Sad songs can be a way to indulge in your negativity, instead of repress it. (Or drink it away.) Haven’t we all recovered from a breakup by finding a song that mirrors the experience and playing it on repeat? Turns out it’s not crazy; it’s scientifically reasonable.
Previous studies of why people love sad music also found it can evoke positive feelings, like nostalgia and peacefulness, especially in people who are empathetic—"who have a heightened responsiveness to the experiences of others."
The reason for our endless love of sad songs could lie in a truism as old as time: misery loves company.