Why we enjoy sad music

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.)


3 thoughts on “Why we enjoy sad music

  1. Kaylen Kim

    I definitely resort to my sad playlist as well when I am feeling down. By reading this post, I could understand why it would feel so comforting to listen to sad music when feeling sad or depressed. The fact that you can identify with the emotions expressed in the sad songs you listen to is weirdly comforting. It makes you think “I’m glad I am not the only one that feels like this”, “it is comforting to know that other people are going through similar things.” It also distracts you from your own problems and instead helps you focus on the music itself. What’s interesting is that there is research that proves that listening to too much sad music as a distraction away from your own problems is a sign of avoidance and may be harmful.

  2. Matthew James Manley

    That’s interesting that listening to sad music generates a hormone that helps to deal with grief because I’ve noticed that listening to enough dreary music usually helps me out when I’m feeling down. I also have a slow/sad music playlist on Spotify.

  3. Grace Cuffel

    This post was really interesting! It caught my eye because I actually have a playlist of some sad music that I listen to when I’m feeling down and I always wondered if other people do it too. I never thought about the fact that we are actually relating to the sad music as we listen to it.

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