Why Do We Tend to Listen to Sad Music When We’re Sad?

What do we need when we are sad? Does it help when a loved one says, “Don’t feel sad”? Or a friend says, “Cheer up”? While we may appreciate knowing that someone cares and wants us to be happy, these responses fail to acknowledge and affirm our feelings. We may want something that supports our genuine and heartfelt emotion.

That something may be music, especially when it comes to feelings that can’t be described in words. It can be comforting to hear music that resonates with our emotions. When the tone of the music matches our mood, we may feel immediately that the music “speaks to us” and mirrors our true underlying feelings. When a songwriter croons a tune that sounds as sad as we feel, we can sense deep empathy and understanding.

As we explain in our book Manage Your Stress and Pain Through Music, we music therapists call this match the “iso-principle” (“iso” means same): “You might start with some slow music with long, flowing phrases. The next selection could be faster and more expressive.” As the music stirs up more energy, it “entrains” our mood to wake up from sadness and feel more motivated. All the while, the music is supporting us, and gently persuading us to feel differently.

Other times, music gives us permission to release pent-up tears. When we cry our eyes out (and music can evoke this the way no other stimulus can), we are expressing our innermost selves, and releasing stress hormones at the same time.

Music that feels sad to me may evoke other feelings in someone else, and the same piece of music may elicit different emotions at different times. For example, the poignancy of Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” may sound piercingly beautiful or may recall painful memories of a recent funeral.

Great philosophers have spoken eloquently of the power of music to manipulate our emotions. Music therapists apply this knowledge in a systematic way to help people cope with sadness, explore it, and make it malleable. While we may never comprehend the intricacies of the impact of music on our emotions, we are witnesses to its profound influence, and beneficiaries of its beauty.

Suzanne Hanser is the chair of the department of music therapy at the Berklee College of Music. Susan Mandel manages the music therapy program and music therapy research investigations at Lake Health in Ohio.

Category: Q&A

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