Why do we listen to sad music? Perhaps it’s a particularly gloomy day, full of cold winds and dark clouds, or a long commute home after a bad day at work. Maybe a personal matter, like a breakup or a loss, sets the groundwork to turn on a sad song.
While all of those factors can trigger a person to soak in musical melancholia, sadness is a universal emotion most of us feel from time to time. Interestingly enough, although listening to melancholy music seems pessimistic, it is often cathartic.
Why do we listen to sad songs?
Studies show that listening to sad music can strengthen our capacity for empathy and emotional expressivity, while also offering us comfort.
Music is often associated with pleasantries like celebration, enjoyment and escapism. Through this understanding, it may seem counterproductive or self-destructive to listen to sad music, as it forces one to experience negative emotions.
However, a 2014 study conducted by Freie Universität Berlin (The Free University of Berlin) revealed: “Music-evoked sadness can be appreciated not only as an aesthetic abstract reward (due to the engagement of imaginative processes or the lack of “real-life” implications), but also plays a role in well-being, by providing consolation as well as by regulating negative moods and emotions.”
In layman’s terms: listening to sad music can be beneficial! Participants found sad music to be both emotionally comforting and balancing.
Melancholy Music and the “Sadness Paradox”
According to research conducted by the University of Melbourne the “Sadness Paradox,” which reveals that people who appreciate sad music tend to have a higher capacity for empathy and emotional expressivity.
The act forces us to confront the negativity in our own lives, but also allows us to share our sadness with musicians and their fans.
As songs like Olivia Rodrigo’s gut-wrenching, teenage ballad “drivers license” continue to top charts around the world it is evident that people will never stop loving sad music. Many most popular, prominent and poignant tear-jerkers from recent years belong to powerful female musicians.
Women Who Make Beautifully Sad Music: Taylor Swift, SZA and Phoebe Bridgers
Over the last decade, countless female artists have proven themselves to be masters of melancholia.
Pop stars like Adele—famous for bluesy ballads like “Someone Like You” and “Hello”—certainly come to mind. 19-year-old Billie Eilish is publicly and critically acclaimed for her moody music, as apparent with the success of her 2019 album WHEN WE FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO?.
More recently, however, we’ve heard Taylor Swift’s departure from stadium-pop anthems to confessional, folky stories. With the release of folklore in July and its sister album evermore in December, Swift is honing her knack of storytelling through melancholy melodies and lyrics about unrequited love, betrayal and profound loss.
On folklore’s closing track “hoax,” Swift’s soft vocals accompany a haunting piano melody: “Stood on the cliffside screaming give me a reason / Your faithless love’s the only hoax I believe in / Don’t want no other shade of blue but you / No other sadness in the world would do.”
Swift’s decision to release two alternative albums last year may have come as a shock, but many female artists have ventured outside of mainstream pop and found success in emotional music.
In 2017, SZA’s alt-R&B album Ctrl struck a chord with lonely twenty-somethings and music critics alike through the artist’s ability to navigate the desolate struggles of romance and self-love. On “Supermodel,” SZA pairs her sexuality with vengefulness, while on “Normal Girl” she laments about the desire to be “a type of girl you take home to your mama” instead of the bedroom.
SZA’s most recent release of “Good Days” in December seems like a musical continuation of Ctrl’s sonic breeziness and introspective lyricism.
Phoebe Bridgers, a 25-year-old indie musician, uses her music to tackle the not-so-palatable moments in life when we’re wallowing in self-pity, emotionally dizzy and doting on the undeserving (“You are sick and you’re married, and you might be dying / But you’re holding me like water in your hands”). Bridgers has found massive success through her depressive tell-alls, earning four Grammy nominations for her 2020 album Punisher.
In an interview with MTV News, Bridgers explained her love of sad music, saying “Some people misunderstand sad music…it’s like trauma representation. It’s like when I read a book that’s super dark…there’s a weight that has been lifted. Someone that you look up to, laying all of this out, that you relate to.
Embrace the Sad
Though we should visit the upbeat side of the musical spectrum from time to time, it is important to recognize the value in sad music.. Listening to sad music is a healthy test of human emotion because it strengthens our ability to empathize and offers comfort in our darkest moments.
Taylor Swift, SZA and Phoebe Bridgers are just a few of the standout musicians on the lengthy list of female pioneers of the “Sadness Paradox” in music.