If you’re like me, your first instinct when the weight of existence descends upon you is to press play on the most horrifically depressing batch of songs you can find. I’ve always been fascinated by this – why hearing Yellow Submarine when I’m sad is ultimately enough to make me want to tear my heart out.
The difference between hearing sad music and actually being sad is that sad music comes with a sort of romanticism, say researchers for the Tokyo University of the Arts and the RIKEN Brain Science Institute in Japan. It presents a sort of idealized, romanticized version of the emotion, one in which the feeling poses us no immediate threat.
Other researchers point out that our heart-wrenching tunes provide us validation, and a deep connection with what we’re truly feeling. The songs express our experiences, and therefore we feel understood. When this happens, it has the tendency to bring us out of our depressive bubbles and realize that what we’re feeling is perfectly normal and human, allowing us to then move on more easily. This, then, goes for essentially all other forms of art. As an article by cinematherapy points out, painful experiences release stress chemicals in our bodies, while the catharsis of watching a sad film combats these naturally by helping us work through and understand sad events in our lives.
David Huron, a music professor at Ohio State University, reports that listening to depressing music tends to cause a spike in the hormone prolactin in the brain, a hormone used to deal with grief. Prolactin is also released during a number of other basic human activities, such as sex or ovulation in females.
Prolactin, in addition, acts as a tool to keep our grief from getting out of hand when we experience an event that is sad or traumatic. So, essentially, when we listen to sad music, we’re “tricking” our brains into thinking that something sad happened, thus releasing prolactin. So really, the benefits are practically undeniable: the pleasure of a prolactin release with none of the trauma or psychological malaise.
(Here’s a video of Elliott Smith performing one of his songs on the piano. His music depressing as Hell, so keep it in mind for your next breakup, death of a pet, existential crisis, etc. Or listen to it any time to get that prolactin flowing.)