Much of the world’s best-loved music is sad, even tragic, in nature. Themes of heartbreak, loss, anxiety, and angst are recurrent in music across all genres, from the frothiest pop to the most serious classical music or opera.
Given how important music is in many people’s lives, why is it that so many of us seem to enjoying listening to songs and musical arrangements that focus so much on the sad parts of life?
First of all, sad stories are, unfortunately, more interesting than happy ones. Everybody loves a tragic hero, while listening to someone singing on and on about how great everything is gets tired very quickly. You can only listen to a bubbly hit like Cliff Richard’s Summer Holiday so many times before wanting to beat your head against a brick wall!
Most importantly, however, sad songs often express feelings and emotions that we experience but can find difficult to articulate. When a cherished relationship ends, or someone we love dies, we are often too upset to talk about how we feel—but we can listen to music and songs that express our feelings for us and experience a sense of relief in that way. Listening to music and songs that articulate our feelings of upset can provide us with a sense of catharsis and start us off on the road towards healing. In that way, sad music is actually a positive tool when it comes to establishing and maintaining emotional wellness.
Perhaps it’s easy to understand why we listen to sad songs when we are feeling upset, but how can we explain the massive popular appeal of musical genres such as the blues, or of musical heroes like Leonard Cohen and Nick Cave, who overwhelmingly sing about dark and tragic themes? Surely there can’t be that many sad and heartbroken people out there?
In fact, a lot of people find that sad music resonates with them not just when they themselves are having a tough experience, but also when things are going great. Many of them even find that sad music helps to make their good mood even better! Perhaps the reason why is because, as adults, we are all painfully aware of how transient happiness can be. Life will always have its challenges as well as its joys. By recognising this unavoidable truth in the music we listen to, we are preparing ourselves for when things get tough. Music gives us a special sort of vocabulary and an emotional toolbox that helps us to be strong. At the same time, listening to sad music when our lives are going well can make us feel positive, when we compare our current situation to the one described in or by the music.
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