The Sadness Paradox – Why do we enjoy listening to music that makes us sad?

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Music and its impact on the mind, brain and behaviour is a mystery that music psychologists and neuroscientists are still trying to decode today. Its wide range of effects are as diverse and multifaceted as its numerous genres and styles.

We love making and listening to music. And with the same sentiments as ABBA, what we do know for sure is that we can’t live (meaningfully) without it.

There is no single, distinct area of the brain that is responsible for processing music like there is for abilities like speech and language (i.e. Broca and Wernicke’s areas). In fact, it’s the complete opposite; if you were to look at the brain’s response to music with an imaging technique like fMRI, you would see areas and neural networks all over the brain light up.

This may be the reason why music adds so much enrichment to our lives – There is no other phenomenon or event that activates our brains quite like this.

It comes as no surprise that musical taste is very personal, whether you’re a musician, composer or avid Spotify playlist creator. And it has much to do with the fact that it is strongly intertwined with memory and emotion.

And whether you are actively or subconsciously aware of it, we often use music as a tool to regulate our emotions.

Music maketh the mood

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That makes a lot of sense, right?

When the sun is shining and your day is going great, you might listen to some catchy pop music to further enhance your good mood and positivity.

If you’ve had a long day at work or are nervous before an exam, you might listen to some calming, peaceful music to de-stress and relax.

When you go to the gym many people listen to fast, upbeat music to get themselves pumped and motivated to exercise.

Emotional regulation means changing your current mood or feelings for those that are more desirable to you. And we usually use music as a way to improve or elevate our mood.

Again, usually.

Why is it that we are attracted to music that makes us feel sad? Sadness is not a desirable emotion at all (to most people), so why do we often seek it out? And what kind of strange, sorrowful pleasure do we derive from it?

This is the Sadness Paradox.

Logically, you would think that if you feel sad, listening to happy, upbeat music would make you feel better. But I can personally attest that this isn’t always the case. One study has evidence to support that music choice is less about desired mood, and more about songs that reflect or mirror the current emotional state.

I recently had a conversation with a friend who finds immense solace in sad music, with about 80% of their saved songs on Spotify being in this category. They seemed to be selecting sad music on purpose, but it wasn’t always because they wanted to experience further sadness.

This only piqued my curiosity further as to why this turned out to be commonly the case for so many people.

Sad isn’t always Bad

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Several studies conducted by music psychologists suggest that people who are high in empathy are more likely to enjoy sad music. This might be because they better understand or are more easily moved by the perceived emotions it conveys (i.e. sensitive to emotional contagion). They are also more likely to consider sad music to be more aesthetically beautiful and high-quality than other types – So it’s not always necessarily about emotion, but also cognition and perception.

Interestingly, similar results were also uncovered in a survey about the reasons behind enjoyment of sad films.

In another study by researchers at the University of Limerick, 65 adults were surveyed about instances where they chose to listen to sad music, in response to a negative situation/experience. In analysing the participants’ descriptions, what they found were several recurring reasons and motivations for doing so, including:

Strategies for selecting songs

  • A memory trigger – help with retrieving memories to experience nostalgia
  • Connection to the story or message communicated by both lyrics and musical elements.

Functions the music served for them

  • Re-experiencing affect – to help process their emotions and move on
  • Cognitive’ complex thought – putting things into perspective e.g. sadness is a common, shared aspect of humanity, feelings of empathy and not being alone etc.
  • Distraction – sad music allowed participants to escape silence, which would normally be filled by overwhelming or negative thoughts.

 A Powerful effect on our affect

It surprised me that the findings of these studies nearly all rang true for the friend I mentioned before. And while I had initially suggested that their preference for sad music was only continuing a vicious cycle, now I understand that its more complex than that; perhaps an important method they use to cope with and process their emotions.

However, only listening to sad music all the time is not always good, and neither is relying entirely on music to make you feel better; this is especially true for people battling depression or other mood disorders. There are cases where people listen to music for rumination i.e. the music causes them to experience negative emotions and thoughts, but they can’t stop listening and are stuck in a loop.

Whatever the reasons and motivations are behind listening to (or making) particular types of music, it’s crystal clear that music choice has a powerful effect on our affect.


Additional reading:

Speech/language perception:

Areas of the brain involved in listening to music:

What happens when playing a musical instrument:

10 Responses to “The Sadness Paradox – Why do we enjoy listening to music that makes us sad?”

  1. Danielle Fong says:

    Thanks Gemma! It definitely changed the way I listen to music, or at least made me more aware of the different effects I experienced.

  2. Danielle Fong says:

    Thanks Cynthia, I’m really glad you found it accessible to read! I’ve gone ahead and added a concluding sentence to tie things up. As for the fMRI scans, I struggled to find an image I felt comfortable including that didn’t go against the creative commons licensing, but here are some great links to these images and I’ll certainly go back and include them in the blog post.
    Speech/language perception:

    Areas of the brain involved in listening to music:

    What happens when playing a musical instrument:

  3. Danielle Fong says:

    Thank you Ben! Yes it’s something that doesn’t strike you as being a bit strange until you stop and think about it!

  4. Danielle Fong says:

    Thanks John I’m glad you learned something new! I definitely related to the results of that study as well, as I also feel that I’m an empathetic person and am easily moved by emotion-laden music.

  5. Danielle Fong says:

    Thanks Marissa! Sometimes we just need a way to get our feelings out, and music helps a lot with expressing ourselves even when we don’t know where to start.

  6. Gemma Higgins says:

    Really great post Danielle. Next time I listen to music I think I’ll be over analysing it

  7. Cynthia says:

    This topic is very interesting to me because I have my own favourite sad songs to have a cry to.

    The post finished abruptly, perhaps a final sentence could be added.

    I would love to see some of the scans showing the contrasting brain activity during speaking vs listening to music.

    The chatty style was very accessible even though I don’t have a background in this area.

  8. Benjamin Andrikopoulos says:

    I never thought about this but its so true! Sometimes a sad song is just what i need 🙂 Thanks for the post Danielle!

  9. John Nguyen says:

    Wow what an informative post Danielle! I enjoy listening to sad music when I’m sad and happy. I also agree with the results of the study mentioned as I’m an empathetic person.

  10. Marissa Nalenan says:

    Sometimes I wondered why I kept listening to sad songs when I was sad and ended up crying out loud. Hahaha
    Now I know.
    By the way, I enjoyed reading through your piece Danielle 😊