STUDY: Sad Songs Say So Much (Even More Than You Think)

Olimpia Zagnoli Sad songs say so much STUDY: Sad Songs Say So Much (Even More Than You Think)

Illustrator: Olimpia Zagnoli | Source: New York Times

As a minor key kind of gal, I often wonder: 

Why does sad music make me feel so happy?

Why do I feel so thrilled when Jacques Brel sings of abandonment? Why do I prefer my Chopin in C sharp minor? Why do I love Leonard Cohen so much?

Aristotle thought that the answer to this phenomenon was catharsis — by immersing ourselves in sad feelings, we free ourselves from those same emotions in real life.

But psychologist Ai Kawakami has a more interesting explanation: that the sadness we feel “in the realm of artistic appreciation” is NOT THE SAME THING as the sadness we feel “in everyday life.” When we listen to tragic music, he says, we understand perfectly well that we’re listening to something “gloomy, meditative, and miserable.” But that’s not what we feel. Instead, this kind of music provokes romantic emotions — “fascinated, dear, and in love” — and even blithe ones, like feeling merry, animated, and “in the mood for dancing.”

Kawakami calls these “vicarious emotions” — we experience second-hand sadness, and somehow this transforms it into something lovely and positive.

But why are our emotional systems set up this way? Why is sadness beautiful when viewed from a distance? No one knows the answer yet.

But I have a guess. I think that love and loss go together, flip sides of the same coin – and when we hear music that makes us think of loss, it also makes us appreciate love – fragile, fleeting, evanescent, transcendent love.

In the meantime, here’s a more straightforward question:

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Original Story:
“Why We Like Sad Music”
New York Times

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  1. Mihail on 11.10.2013 at 10:15 (Reply)

    Thank you for that post. I also tend to like sad music more. Not sure about “feeling merry, animated, and “in the mood for dancing” though. Sometimes sad music just makes you sad. Still, it’s a beautiful sadness.
    Here’s a couple of songs

  2. Monique on 11.10.2013 at 10:18 (Reply)

    Your last paragraph made me immediately think of “Gone Away” by Offspring, a current favorite of mine. It’s a terribly sad song, heartbreaking, and yet, it is exactly that knowledge and acknowledgement of love that makes this song so beautiful.

  3. holly on 11.10.2013 at 10:48 (Reply)

    Carolina in My Mind and Fire and Rain by James Taylor. The first about drug addiction, escape, and nostalgia, and the second about the suicide of a friend and fellow musician. I think part of it is that it is hard to feel better when happy, non suffering people try to cheer you up, but when someone speaks to you from their own pain you know you are not alone, and there is hope and beauty still. Knowing that makes me want to dance!

  4. Zach on 11.10.2013 at 12:02 (Reply)

    The first song that comes to my mind is “Hurt,” especially the Johnny Cash version. It’s incredibly sad and conjures all sorts of emotions, but it is also simplistically beautiful. Most songs by Morrisey or The Smiths are sad and depressing, but I just love listening to them and want to dance when I hear them!

    1. Monique on 12.10.2013 at 14:22 (Reply)


      I agree. When you are hurting, knowing someone else does to does make you feel less alone and hopeless, even when it is a different kind of hurt.

  5. Charlotte on 11.10.2013 at 13:40 (Reply)

    This is such a great point. I’ve always loved sad music and wondered if that meant I was some kind of downer. I think melancholy music also for some reason allows us to see our sadness as something with a larger esthetic meaning, rather than just nothingness. Some favorite depressing songs of mine are Kate Bush’s This Woman’s Work, Indigo Girls’ Kid Fears, Papa Can You Hear Me? from Yentl, Metallica’s Fade to Black and I currently love the Lana Del Ray song Video Games. I could go on…

  6. MusicLover on 11.10.2013 at 14:07 (Reply)

    “Riverside” or anything by Agnes Obel, a Danish pianist. Her words, piano, and string accompaniment are so haunting and beautiful and sad. Love her music.

  7. Vero on 11.10.2013 at 17:06 (Reply)

    At the moment I would say it’s “Brave” by Sara Bareilles. I cry every single time I hear it, but it also makes me think, laugh, dance.

  8. Diane on 11.10.2013 at 20:08 (Reply)

    These songs bring me to tears:
    Jeff Buckley - Hallelujah
    Simon and Garfunkel - Bridge Over Troubled Water

  9. Monique on 12.10.2013 at 14:38 (Reply)

    Well, darn! My reply was meant for Holly. Sorry about that.

  10. Monica on 12.10.2013 at 14:57 (Reply)

    I couldn’t help myself writing a sad song when I left a country I had lived in for a few years. It felt like I was torturing myself by writing and singing it for my friends, but again I can’t think of myself NOT TO do so. As a musician, that’s how I express my feelings and it made me feel better afterwards. It was painful and exhilarating at the same time, if not sequential.

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