Sad Times Call For Sad Music

Caroline Howe| Contributor | USDRadio 


In the 2005 song, “Bad Day” Daniel Powter powerfully sings, “You sing a sad song just to turn it around.”

Now why is that so relatable? Wouldn’t it make more sense that happy music would be the best medicine for a blue day, a long week, or tough time?

I have had my fair share of lousy days and I often prescribe myself a healthy dose of tear-jerking songs. Different sadness calls for different music. Breakups may request songs that remind you of the specific relationship or even more general songs about the end of a relationship like “In Your Hands” by Jason Mraz or “Dust to Dust” sung by The Civil Wars. A typical bad day may lead you to crave classics like “Over My Head” by The Fray or “The Scientist” from Coldplay.

I’ll be the first to admit, I’m a crier so I could go on and on but I know I am not the only person that participates in this odd phenomenon of inducing more sadness through music. Two researchers at The University of Limerick, Ireland, Annemieke Van den Tol and Jane Edwards seem to understand me and set out to explain this irrational habit in their 2011 study titled Exploring a rationale for choosing to listen to sad music when feeling sad. They discovered four dominant reasons why people choose sad music even during distressing times, which are also easily summarized on Psychology Today:

  • Connection- individuals are interested relatable experiences discusses in music. These connections allow for “(1) strengthening the intensity of the respondent’s current emotional state; and (2) getting in touch with certain emotions” which I personally find very therapeutic (Edwards & Van den Tol, 8).
  • Memory Triggers- listeners select music to “experience memories, nostalgia, or feeling closer to others they [miss]” (Edwards, 9). This is when you play Victim C’s “Graduation” when you miss your childhood friends or Phillip Phillip’s “Home” when you actually miss home.
  • Highly Aesthetic Value- listeners choose a song because they think it is good or they simply like it. Edwards and Van den Tol mention this may or may not relate to memories but that is not the focus of picking a song for aesthetic value.
  • Message Communicated- an example of a song that would be chosen for this reason would be “Imagine” performed by John Lennon. While the song sounds sad and may have some gloomier lyrics, the overall message of the song communicates something positive such as hope. When people select a song for this reason, they are focused on what the song is saying rather than how it is saying it.

You may find some of Edwards and Van den Tol points speak to your experiences. Personally, I find the first and second reasons to be the most convincing. Music allows us to grieve, cry, laugh, smile, and move on.