Can Sad Music Make You Happy?

Eve analyses how music affects our mood – as we all dwell on sad music during these winter months.

 It’s January 2022. Here, in St Andrews, we’re entering the coldest and cloudiest time of year. The sky’s dark for almost three times as long as it’s light and, even during daylight hours, 65% of days are ‘overcast’ or ‘mostly cloudy’. To make matters worse, the new Omicron variant has caused COVID-19 cases to soar and forced thousands of people into self-isolation. The January blues are ready to hit.
With the early months of last year seeing a disgruntling 1 in 5 adults experience some form of depression, more than a few of us are likely to be dragged through the psychological trenches in the coming months. And what’s the natural accompaniment to our low spirits? Music – sad music, cry music, whatever you call it. Many of us choose to resort to playlists of gloomy, emotional hits to soothe or, at least, harmonize with our teary eyes.

But what’s the science behind sad people’s inclination towards sad music? Does listening to the likes of Adele, Phoebe Bridgers and Lana del Ray help us to feel comforted and understood, or does it simply cause us to dwell on our own sadness? Well, as you’d expect, the answers to these questions are relatively complex.

There’s definitely evidence to suggest that the arrival of shorter days and colder weather causes us to step away from feel-good summer bops towards slower, more despondent tunes. A study by Terry Pettijohn indicates that the number of daylight hours can impact our music choices, with university students tending to lean towards ‘reflective and complex’ music during the winter months and ‘energetic and rhythmic’ music during the summer. Data from Spotify points towards a similar correlation between dreary weather and low-mood songs, indicating that song popularity fluctuates more in countries with more distinct seasonal differences.

Source: Stock images

There’s also evidence to suggest music can affect us in our day-to-day lives. Whilst the Mozart-effect theory (that listening to Mozart can boost a child’s IQ) bears little semblance to reality, a study by Patrick N. Juslin, Gonçalo Barradas and Tuomas Eerola revealed that ‘mere sound can have a profound impact on listeners’. It can cause positive and negative stimuli, quicken heart rates and even alter muscle activity. The exact nature of sad-sounding music’s impact on our emotions does, however, vary from person to person.

Some studies indicate that, strangely enough, listening to other people singing about their struggles can make people happier. Musical psychologist Liila Taruffi’s work on neural responses revealed that the ‘experience sharing’ element of listening to sad songs can evoke positive feelings of ‘warmth and care’, even providing a ‘virtual surrogate for interaction’. The Juslin, Barradas and Eurola study also suggests that such music produces emotions like ‘nostalgia, peacefulness and wonder’. Sounds good, right?
Well, unfortunately for Adele fans, the situation’s not quite that simple. The clear majority of studies indicate that, especially in the cases of empaths and those struggling with depression, low-mood music is most likely to worsen mental states. According to Sandra Garrido and Emery Schubert’s study on ‘Music and People with Tendencies to Depression’, clinically depressed individuals tend to experience ‘unhealthy’ effects from low-mood music. Terry Pettijohn’s study concurs, suggesting that ‘such introspective content may reinforce isolation and depression’, as does Sandra Garrido’s work on teenage psychology. Even Liila Taruffi’s findings reveal that, whilst sad music can produce ‘pleasurable’ emotions, it risks causing ‘empathetic distress’ within participants.

Put simply, although it can be comforting, sad music is most likely to make you feel even worse.
What’s the solution then? Well, perhaps unsurprisingly, science suggests that listening to happy music is the most sure-fire way to boost your mood. In Sarah Garrido’s study, for example, when participants were played an up-beat song of choosing, ‘even those with high levels of depression felt much better’. Dancing along to some obnoxiously joyful song is probably the last thing anyone wants to do when they’re feeling low. But, if the science is right, it might be worthwhile popping on some chirpy music next time you’re down in the dumps.

So, now that’s cleared up, I guess there’s one thing left to say: ‘Hey, Google. Play Walking on Sunshine on repeat.’



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