Many of us instinctively turn to sad music when we’re feeling down. We may not be sure precisely why, but we do so with the unspoken belief that sorrowful sounds will lift our spirits.
Does this counter-intuitive strategy really work? Newly published research suggests it can, at least for some people. But one’s choice of melancholy music matters.
In a study, sad music “directly predicted mood enhancement” only when it was of “perceived high aesthetic value,” according to researchersAnnemieke J.M. Van den Tol of the University of Kent and Jane Edwards of the University of Limerick.
Their work suggests turning to a somber song or symphony can be an effective route out of sadness—if you can focus on experiencing the work’s inherent beauty.
In the journal Psychology of Music, the researchers describe a detailed survey featuring 220 people of 26 different nationalities. They listed specific reasons why they listened to sad music following unhappy events, and what effect (if any) it had on their moods.
In one key section, they responded to a series of statements that began “I choose to listen to the music….” Examples include “because the music reminds me of a person,” “because the music contains lyrics that communicate hope,” “because the lyrics relate to my situation,” and “to experience the beauty of the sad songs.”
Those who strongly endorsed that last reason (and two similar statements) were the most likely to report that they felt better after listening. In contrast, choosing music “with the intention of triggering memories” was actually counterproductive.
“We argue that the more beautiful music is, the easier it is for the listener to concentrate on the music,” the researchers write. While presumably fitting one’s initial mood, the piece ultimately serves as an effective distraction.
The researchers caution that the emotions aroused by music, and the ways people use music to adjust or enhance their mood, are complex and variable. They note that their own previous research has found “listening to sad music while feeling sad will intensify feelings of sadness for most people.”
However, that truism apparently does not apply to people who truly prize music for its aesthetic appeal. For such aficionados, losing yourself in a work of ethereal beauty—say, a Mahler symphony, or a great jazz player wailing the blues—is an effective strategy to transcend sadness.