Ever listen to a sad song and actually feel kind of happy? Maybe you feel moved and enjoy the fullness of the emotion. The sadness paradox tells us sometimes sad music can actually help us feel better, but why?
Content warning: this article mentions suicide and self-harm.
The first opening notes of Joy Division’s Atmosphere from their 1980 EP Licht Und Bleindheit (Light and Darkness) move into your ears like a slow, solemn procession. The melancholic, quiet pain of Ian Curtis’s pleading, “don’t walk away, in silence”, reflects his knowledge that his marriage was about to end.
These connotations of sadness are then even further amplified by the knowledge that only two months after the release of this song, Curtis took his own life. Suddenly the lyrics have a dual meaning: the inevitable breakdown of his marriage and an inner turmoil surrounding his suicidality.
It’s clear that this isn’t a ‘happy’ song, so, why when in the throes of depression as a teenager, did it feel so comforting to me?
On the episode of the podcast, Deeply Human: ‘Sad Music’, presenter Dessa speaks to Andy Thompson, a composer about what makes sad music ‘sad’. On the purely technical side of what sad music is doing in comparison to happy music, Thompson said this:
“…when you feel sad, you kind of pull inward and you're quiet and you don't necessarily want to speak to other people…one thing the composer can do is to bring the dynamic down. Another thing composer can do is use sparseness...have the notes be very alone with themselves.”
Thompson continued, “C major chord has a C major third. To make it a minor chord, you take that second note, and you move it down a half step, which is the shortest distance you can move an interval in music. You're basically talking about two frequencies interacting and when they interact one way, it generally makes people feel happy, and when they interact a different way, it makes them feel sad. And that to me is kind of like a black hole.”
So, we know that there is something specifically happening that is different with sad music vs happy. The sequential progression of chords must be a certain way to qualify as either. In the episode, Dessa remarks (upon hearing an example of major and minor chords) that she couldn’t possibly understand someone who prefers how the major chords sound, she is a self-professed “sad music lover”.
But why listen to sad music at all, and why do some people prefer it?
In the Deeply Human episode, Dessa also speaks to producer and music critic, Steven Thompson, who speaks about having a “depressive streak” and “an anxious streak”. On how music has helped him with these symptoms he said:
“a song that has a way of processing those emotions can sometimes serve like a sorting mechanism for the web of feelings in my head…so I think sad music is really therapeutic for me in that way”.
This resonates with me. When experiencing what felt like a never-ending numb, low mood as an 18-year-old and I listened to Atmosphere; it didn’t make me feel sadder, contrastingly it actually relieved me. I felt kinship with the words, the nostalgic and mournful sound of the synths and reed organ felt cathartic.
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A study from 2019 investigated this preference that depressed people have for sad music, published in Emotion journal. In this study, participants reported feeling better after listening to sad music, not that it perpetuated a low mood as was previously thought. As study co-author Jonathan Rottenberg said, “They actually were feeling better after listening to this sad music than they were before”.
Sunkyung Yoon, leader of the study, noted that those who preferred the sad music said they favoured it because it was “relaxing, calming or soothing”. This notion of soothing symptoms of depression with sad music really feels like it is hitting the mark.
When we are distressed, humans often turn to self-soothing habits, tasks, hobbies and experiences. Some of these self-soothing coping mechanisms can be valuable and healthy, such as yoga to combat anxiety, but we can also partake in unhealthy coping mechanisms such as self-harm, drug and alcohol misuse or even biting our fingers or pulling out our hair.
Depression comes with many damaging symptoms, one of the most profoundly felt for me as my depression persevered was a feeling of emptiness, numbness. I went from feeling as though my emotions were too big, too much to carry, to feeling nothing.
Music, at the time was one of the few ways I could safely experience emotion. Depression, as with many mental illnesses also has the ability to completely isolate you. Suddenly, all those things you used to be able to relate with the people around you over - mean nothing.
The evenings I spent listening to sad music on my big headphones were firmly rooted in finding solace and catharsis. In reality, I was sat in my teen bedroom alone, but the music in my ears made it feel as if I was sitting with a friend - who not only understood but had gone through this very thing.
So, for people with depression, it can be a helpful coping mechanism and other studies exploring a general preference for sad music without depression as a factor, suggest those who enjoy sad music more than happier or uplifting music, are more empathetic.
Music clearly has a unique impact on the mind, whether a depressed one or not. Unlike how we process language, numbers, or faces, music causes networks all over the brain to start firing, reacting, and processing.
Could music be an important addition to treating depression?
If studies such as that in the 2019 Emotion journal have anything to say, calming, soothing, ‘sad’ music could have a part to play in therapy. Music therapy does already exist, although it is not extremely commonplace. In music therapy, trained professionals incorporate singing, listening to or playing music as a part of their therapeutic approach.
Traditionally, this kind of therapy for mood disorders has focused on music’s ability to alter mood through the release of endorphins, dopamine, and oxytocin. However, if more research such as that by Yoon and Rottenberg can expand on the idea of the sad paradox - and how sad music can improve the mood of depressed individuals, this could create opportunities for music being incorporated into talking therapies in new ways.
Being a person who has an inclination towards sad, melancholic music often comes with negative undertones. People might tell you to “lighten up”, call you an emo or “too depressing”. When in actuality, the positive side-effects of listening to a sad song seem to be tightly linked with our humanity and our ability to feel complex emotions.
I have since moved on from the time where I constantly listened to Joy Division. Much of my music library now reflects the happiness and fulfilment I experience in life, but every so often I feel a pull to tune into a part of me that feels that inexplicable tangle of emotions that is sad, moved, soothed and nostalgic all at once.
I search ‘Joy Division’ on my music app, and the first song I listen to always is and always will be: Atmosphere.
If the issues discussed in this article apply to yourself or someone you know you can seek help and information around depression on Mind's page on the disorder here.
If you or someone you know is feeling suicidal you can access Samaritans 24/7 helpline on 116 123.