Music and Mood: Do sad songs really say so much, as Sir Elton John stated? By: Stephanie Bartik

Written by on August 7, 2021

I often find myself turning to music to help navigate the sea of emotions ebbing to-and-fro within me at any given time. One day as I was switching from Let’s go Crazy (Prince) to Everybody Hurts (REM), it struck me. The past year has been a musical downer, no doubt about it.

The mixed emotions of disappointment, uncertainty, hope, frustration, anger, sadness, feeling helpless, then hopefulness, comradery and loneliness has been draining.
I was wondering about the power of music. Was I using it to smooth this rocky world? Perhaps to heal myself?

Someone suggested I should only listen to happy songs, but I argued “sometimes I need the sad, to process”. He thought I was wrong, so, me, being a science nerd, I had to research.

Ends up, music and mood are closely interrelated – Music can change your mood; however, it can also change your perception. For example, people will recognize happy faces if they are feeling happy themselves. A study at the University of Groningen, shows that music has an even more dramatic effect on perception: even if there is nothing to see, people sometimes still see happy faces when they are listening to happy music and sad faces when they are listening to sad music.

Test subjects performed a task in which they had to identify happy and sad smileys while listening to happy or sad music. Music turned out to have a great influence on what the subjects saw: smileys that matched the music were identified much more accurately. And even when no smiley at all was shown, the subjects often thought they recognized a happy smiley when listening to happy music and a sad one when listening to sad music. This aligns that your brain continuously compares the information that comes in through your eyes with what it expects, based on what you know about the world. The result of this comparison process is what we eventually experience as reality. Research suggests that the brain builds up expectations not just based on experience but on your mood as well.

But, why do I ‘need’ to hear those sad songs? How do they help me process?

A common thought is when depressed people preferred sad music over happy music it suggested this might be keeping them down. This seems unlikely to me, that depressed people want to feel sad. They are often paralyzed from it. The depressed go to therapy saying they want to get rid of the funk, snap out of it. A study on people who were diagnosed with clinical depression (depression lasting 2 years or more) had the subjects choose between different music clips, and found it is true that depressed people preferred sad songs.

Then the researchers had the subjects do a different task which involved listening to the sad music and describe how they felt afterward. This, is where the surprise came in. They were actually feeling better- the sad music made them less sad. The sad music seemed to have a calming effect on the subjects. Perhaps misery loves company comes into play here?
My take is that the music was more aligned with their feelings. Like sailing a boat on a river, they were going with the stream, not against it.

So, yes, there is a place for both happy and sad music. Just listen to your heart, feel the music run through your veins. Let the music help you process.

Point is, we all need music- Just do not let anyone tell you which type is right for you. Turn up that radio and let those feelings flow.




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