Why We Like Sad Songs

Sad songs are sometimes created and listened to as a result of heartbreak in some form.


Sad songs are sometimes created and listened to as a result of heartbreak in some form.

Anvi Bhagavatula, Photojournalist

Why do we hate being sad in real life but often enjoy listening to sad songs? Dr. Joshua Knobe of Yale released research this week based on party personal experience where he listened to singer Alina Simone, whom he later married. Alina’s music had a suicidal motif. Our response to sad music, however, is not simply “sad,” but falls into three categories: grief (which includes anger and terror), melancholia (sadness, self-pity), and sweet sorrow (consolation, appreciation for what we still have). 

Dr. Knobe suggests as we experience sadness, we actually begin feeling something positive, which is a positive empathic reaction. Our bodies hear sadness and we put ourselves in the perspective of the person who is sad. This “shared” emotion with this hypothetical person invokes positive emotions in us. “You’re feeling just alone, you feel isolated,” Dr. Knobe said. 

There’s this experience where you listen to some music, or you pick up a book, and you feel like you’re not alone…It makes me feel happier.

— Nandini Trivedi (11)

Taken from this perspective, we may listen to any kind of music because it makes us feel less alone, and sad music is part of this. But, that is the case more when the music is  (1) perceived as non-threatening; (2) aesthetically pleasing; and (3) produces psychological benefits such as recollection of happy past events.  Sad music has also been shown to provide a feeling of support and comfort during negative life events, as it increases the expression and identification of sadness. Words in the song can help increase understanding of one’s own situation and ultimately increase acceptance of the negative outcomes. 

There are even hormonal changes in response to this music. However, the music must be perceived as non-threatening, not as a sign of impending doom in our own lives. It also must be pleasing to listen to, not simply sad. Finally, it seems to work primarily as a strategy for coping only for those who are already happy or psychologically healthy. It doesn’t seem to work well for individuals who are depressed or anxious. 

They seem to interpret their negative mood upon listening to the songs as a sign of general sadness, not of connection with others. There is still the mystery of who the connection to others is felt with. Is it with the singer? An abstract person? People in general? And, do we feel sad about what the song is about, or about our own experience? Co-researcher Dr. Mario Attie-Picker gives a simple response to a complex topic. “It just feels right,” he says.