Phoebe Bridgers, an artist known for her melancholic music, pictured performingFLICKR / David Lee (

Humanity has long produced art that depicts or conveys sadness. The ancient Greeks staged widely popular tragic plays, and contemporary film and literature continue to portray human misery to blockbuster fame and critical acclaim. Arguably to an even greater extent than these art forms, melancholic sounds and subjects have been embraced by musical artists and listeners throughout history, whether that be in Western art music, traditional Irish laments, or listening to the 10-minute version of “All Too Well” on repeat.

But the attractiveness of sad music presents a “tragedy paradox”, at least on the surface. When experienced as a consequence of events in one’s life, sadness is hardly pleasant, and one might intuitively expect sad music to make listeners feel worse. It seems contradictory that in a society where happiness is often held as the ultimate prize we should seek out and consume sad music with such voracity.

“Sad music [...] helps us tap into a universal emotional communion that assures us we are not alone”

We clearly ascribe “sadness” as an emotion to certain pieces of music which begs the question: does this music really provoke the same emotional and cognitive experience as sadness caused by external factors? A 2014 study by Taruffi & Koelsch surveyed almost 800 individuals, finding that nostalgia was actually the emotion that sad music most often elicited (76% of participants), followed by peacefulness (58%), tenderness (52%) and sadness (45%). Clearly an emotion that is related to sadness, nostalgia is more complex, accounting for the perhaps more introspective and bittersweet twinge that sad music evokes in us.

Intriguingly, despite participants citing these generally pleasant emotions, only 6% nominated joy, suggesting that while superficially paradoxical, the impact of sad music is more subtle than simply being a tool that directly evokes happiness. So, what does sad music provide us with?

Johnny Cash's 'Hurt' is a classic - a sad song for the agesYOUTUBE / Johnny Cash

The same study found that individuals opt to listen to music that reflects their feelings at a particular moment, with over half surveyed listening to sad music when experiencing emotional distress or loneliness. This is where sad music can play a vital role in our wellness. In addition to pure aesthetic appreciation, sad music allows us to process and inhabit our emotions rather than ignoring them and helps us tap into a universal emotional communion that assures us we are not alone. “Just as the painter imitates the features and colours of nature,” wrote the French author Jean-Baptise Dubos in 1719, “so the musician imitates the tones, accents, sighs, inflections of the voice, and indeed all of those sounds with which nature exudes the sentiments and passions.”

In this way, sad music is mimetic or at least suggestive of our own condition. Abstractly, features such as a narrow melodic pitch range, legato articulation, use of the minor key, slow tempo, and falling melodic intervals are employed by artists to distil melancholy into acoustic form, a framework to which the listener affixes their experiences. More specifically, the lyrics of sad music often mirror our own experiences, providing solidarity.

“Listening to sad music not only allows us to process our emotions, but release emotional tension in a healing purge”

Music is also a form of catharsis. Translating roughly to “purification”, catharsis as a metaphor was first used by Aristotle in relation to the psychological effect of dramatic tragedy on the spectator but has been applied in many contexts from Freudian psychoanalaysis to religion (and even bowel laxatives!). For Aristotle, one of the key functions of music in education and a well-run polity was catharsis. Listening to sad music not only allows us to process our emotions, but also release emotional tension in a healing purge, with a pleasant and beneficial outcome for the listener. Unlike sadness brought on by life’s circumstances, catharsis when listening to sad music occurs in a safe, purely aesthetic setting, resulting in a clear and refreshed mind.


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The neuroscientific basis for these psychological processes and philosophical descriptions is unfortunately sparse, though scientists have made several observations that may go some way to provide at least a partial explanation. The hormone prolactin is released in a part of the brain called the hypothalamus in response to the experience of negative emotions, and acts to promote attachment and pair bonding. Prolactin has been proposed to be released when music simulates sadness, serving to comfort and console without the actual mental pain that normally precedes release, though this hypothesis is as yet untested.

Other studies have found that while sad music activates the same regions that are activated in response to physical “sad” stimuli, including the amygdala and hippocampus, music that is slow in tempo still activates reward systems in the brain and stimulates dopamine release. Simultaneous activation of areas associated with negative and positive emotions could therefore underlie the tragedy paradox of sad music.

So the next time you feel the urge to listen to Phoebe Bridgers, Sufjan Stevens or a Brahms Intermezzo, don’t fight it! A little melancholy might just bring immense satisfaction and release.