Broken-hearted teenage girls may find comfort in Taylor Swift’s biting lyrics, or indulge in a much-needed cry as Beyoncé howls from the speakers. But now science can explain why listening to sad music can cause a positive emotional response, even when distressed.
A newly published study by Liila Taruffi and Stefan Koelsch, who study music and the brain at the Free University of Berlin, examined the subject of sad songs across the world. Surveying 722 people from Europe, Asia and North America, they found that “music-evoked sadness can be appreciated not only as an aesthetic, abstract reward, but [it] also plays a role in well-being, by providing consolation as well as regulating negative moods and emotions.”
The study found that participants responded with a wide range of complex yet fairly positive emotions, such as nostalgia (the most popular reaction), peacefulness, tenderness, transcendence, and wonder. On average, those surveyed experienced at least three emotions while listening to sad music—sadness often elicited by its slower tempos or descending melodies, qualities linked across countries.
People tend to choose sad music when feeling emotionally distressed or lonely: “For most of the people, the engagement with sad music in everyday life is correlated with its potential to regulate moods and emotions, as well as to provide consolation,” the study says. Unhappiness expressed through creativity creates a stimulating, imaginative process for the listener.