Why Sad Songs Make Us Feel Better — and Spark Our Creativity

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Since the advent of Spotify, I’ve been working on a playlist titled “highly emotional music by which to write, creatively.” Like a taste-devoid weepy-ballad magpie, I’ve spent the ensuing years collecting the most ridiculously emotion-evoking songs I can find to build my aural writing nest.

Every time I hear something incredibly heartbreaking, I try to remember to add it to the list. This includes everything from Motown break-up songs to deathbed arias from Puccini operas to the kind of chintzy, tear-jerking movie soundtracks I’d never listen to normally (I heard a theme from Amelie once and thought, “this is so manipulatively melancholy, dear God, I must have it”) to specific songs that evoke particularly poignant moments in my life (hey, golden oldie that made a relative burst into tears that one time, get up in here) or times in our shared cultural history (Springsteen’s dirges for the Iraq War and 9/11) or, shamelessly, epochs in other peoples’ lives (many of songs I saw performed at a tear-drenched Kate McGarrigle tribute concert in New York broke my heart, and then immediately joined the playlist). This is padded out by much of what you’d expect: deeply moody, tragedy-tinged folk and R&B, Fiona and Tori, Joni and Radiohead and Marvin Gaye and Leonard Cohen. When I burst into tears at the end of Once in theaters, the seeds were sown: obviously the Once soundtrack would go on the list.

For my friends and colleagues who approach music a bit more intellectually, this kind of shameless thematic curating may seem, and indeed be, unsophisticated. In my defense, I don’t listen to this playlist while I’m getting dressed in the morning, winding down at night, or at any time that I’m not specifically trying to flex creative muscles. But I can promise you it helps get me in the mood to write. The artificially generated, cathartic pain the playlist evokes starts in my heart, and flows right out to my typing fingers.

This morning, BoingBoing covered a new study about sad music and its relationship to our feelings. What it revealed should not surprise: sad music makes us feel nostalgic more than actually woebegone.

Indeed, listeners reported frequent positive emotions in response to sad music, such as peacefulness, tenderness, and wonder.

As it happens, indulging in moody music has tangible benefits, which I’ve seen from my own writing process:

The study found four general classes of rewards in the responses: imagination, emotion regulation, empathy, and no “real-life” implications of the sadness, which the participants deemed most important.

The study confirms what most of us already knew intuitively. Common sense suggests that sad music inspires because it allows me to process all the feelings I’ll need for my writing — without dwelling on those feelings in my own life. It’s a basic, jugular version of catharsis-through-art. If I actually think too hard about the fact that human existence on earth is an empty wheel hurtling towards destruction and the void is coming to swallow us all (or lesser variations thereof), well, such thoughts do not make me want to write. Rather, they make me want to get into bed and eat a lot of doughnuts. But listening to pain-evoking music distances me from my own existential angst and brings me closer to an abstract, universal woe at the same time.

And that process makes us feel connected, cleansed, and glad. Years before Spotify, when I was younger and cooler and sifting through Lou Reed’s back catalog, alighting on the fact that he wrote a ironic but still sad lamentation called “Sad Song” filled me with unspeakable happiness. Its existence still does. Commenters on the Internet say this song saved their lives.

Something tells me Lou knew what he was doing.