The science behind why hearing sad music feels so good


Adele’s new album, “30”, is finally available. Last month, hundreds of millions of us streamed her first single, Easy on me. This song evokes feelings that are difficult to put into words. But we can probably agree that it’s a sad song.

It is not obvious that we like sad music. Sadness is usually a feeling that we try to avoid. An alien might expect us to find such music depressing and loathsome.

Yet sad music draws us in and lifts us up. So why is hearing sad music so nice?

Biological theories

Let’s start with the biological theories. When we experience real loss or sympathize with the pain of others, hormones such as prolactin and oxytocin are released in us. These help us cope with loss and pain. They do this by making us feel soothed, comforted and supported.

Feeling Adele’s pain, or remembering ours, can cause such chemical changes in us. Clicking on Adele’s song can be like clicking on our own metaphorical morphine drop.

The jury is still out on this theory. One study found no evidence that sad music increases prolactin levels. Yet other studies have suggested a role for prolactin and oxytocin in making sad music feel good.

The psychology behind

One of the main reasons we love sad songs is that they “move” us deeply. This experience is sometimes called kama muta, a Sanskrit term meaning “moved by love”. Feeling moved can involve chills, goose bumps, a flood of emotions (including romantic ones), a warmth in the chest, and elation.

But why do we feel moved? American writer James Baldwin came to this when he reflected: “The things that tormented me the most were the very things that connected me to all the people who were alive, who had always been alive. Likewise, feeling moved can come from suddenly feeling closer to others.

This may explain why the people most likely to feel moved by sad music are those who show empathy. Indeed, when we’ve listened to 30 of them, we can turn to reaction videos to see what others are feeling. It allows us to share an emotional experience with others. A sense of community sharing strengthens our sense of being moved and triggers feelings of comfort and belonging.

A related suggestion is that Adele’s sad music can be a friend to us. It can act as a social substitute. Sad music can be experienced as an imaginary friend who provides support and empathy after a loss.

Sad songs like “Easy on Me” can move us through a shared emotional experience. Photo credit: Adèle / Youtube

Feeling moved can also be a result of triggering memories of important times in our lives. Adele’s songs are powerfully nostalgic. Perhaps it is the nostalgia, rather than the sadness, that we love.

This is because when people listen to sad music, only about 25% say they really feel sad. Others experience other, often related, emotions, most often nostalgia. This feeling of longing can help increase our sense of social connection, alleviate feelings of insignificance, and reduce anxiety.

A completely different type of psychological theory is that Adele’s songs are emotional gyms. They provide us with a safe and controlled space in which we can explore simulated sadness. They are the emotional equivalent of Neo sparring with Morpheus in the Matrix movie.

Simulated sadness allows us to experience and learn from this emotion. We can build empathy, learn to see things better from other people’s perspective, and try out various responses to sadness. This can help us be better prepared in the event of an actual loss. Such learning experiences may have evolved into enjoyable to encourage their use.

Give sense

Alternatively, Adele’s songs may not be enjoyable because they are sad or nostalgic. They can be nice just because they look good. Sadness may well coincide with beauty. Indeed, seeing acts of moral virtue or beauty has been suggested to induce feelings of upliftment and can touch, move and inspire us.

We can also think at the cultural level. We see here the pleasure that Adèle’s songs give us in terms of the meaning that she helps us to give. Adele takes difficult life experiences and helps to understand them.

Adele’s music can look back on difficult life experiences. Photo credit: Adèle / Youtube

That’s what a lot of tragic art does. He takes the pain and the suffering and the sadness of the world and gives it meaning. As the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once said, someone with a why to live can handle almost any how.

Ultimately, Adele’s songs will mean something different to each of us. We listen to sad music when we want to think, belong, or relax. We listen to discover beauty, to receive comfort or to remember.

But to all of us Adele’s songs say: you are not alone in your pain. They allow us to feel his pain, share our suffering, and connect with others past and present. And in sharing our humanity is beauty.

Simon McCarthy-Jones is Associate Professor of Clinical Psychology and Neuropsychology at Trinity College, Dublin.

This article first appeared on The Conversation.