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The Paradoxical Pleasures of Sad Music

After having a rough day, sometimes we just want to blast sad music and sing along with lyrics that match what we are feeling. The paradox-- that we listen to sad music to feel better-- is a question that researchers have asked for years and are beginning to understand.

After having a rough day, sometimes we just want to blast sad music and sing along with lyrics that match what we are feeling. The paradox– that we listen to sad music to feel better– is a question that researchers have asked for years and are beginning to understand. A systematic review of the field of music psychology found that sad music was found pleasurable when it met certain criteria such as being non-threatening, aesthetically pleasing, and causing reflection on past events, which could lead to mood regulation and empathetic feelings (1). This groundwork was tested through experiments that sought to find the true answer as to why humans find sad music pleasurable.

The foundation of understanding sad music was pushed forward after a study with 76 participants that was published in 2014, discussing the reason people enjoy sad movies. The majority of the participants reported feelings of enjoyment despite the sad nature of the films they watched as part of the study. The authors of this study concluded that sad films were popular due to the ability to be moved. Being moved was determined to contribute to overall positive feelings, which means that people like this feeling, hence seek out sad things in order to recreate those feelings (2).

Building upon this, music psychologists began to explore the same possibility for why people seek out sad music. In order to test the hypothesis, two experiments were designed. The first experiment consisted of over 300 participants being exposed to and ranking sad music preferences, where the second experiment used 19 music students that watched short music film excerpts in order to understand the role of sadness and beauty (3). As per the results with the sad films, the authors found that appreciation of sad music was correlated to being moved. A thoroughly-conducted study proved that sad music evoked pleasure in a laboratory setting, but what about in a different environment?

Another study was conducted in order to understand the subjective experience of listeners. Through this study, over 700 Eastern and Western music listeners were recruited to participate in an online survey regarding the research topic. After responses were collected from the participants, researchers identified rewards of sad music the majority of participants had shared, including the reward of imagination, emotion regulation, empathy, and no “real-life” implications. Imagination and no real-life implications refer to how a person can imagine themself being part of the song’s lyrics and current sad situation. Emotion regulation refers to how people seek out music that connects to their feelings and how it is used to regulate them. Empathy can be increased when relating to sad music, especially for individuals that are highly empathetic to begin with, which can be enhanced through music. It was also found in this study that the nostalgia was the most frequent emotion reported when listening to sad music for Western participants, but not for Eastern participants who reported peacefulness instead (4). Seeing how culture shapes our views on certain topics, it would be interesting to see a more in-depth study correlating music preferences, emotions, and culture. More research is needed in order to achieve a comprehensive understanding of this complex research question.

Taking the results from all of these studies together, it becomes evident that sad music does have some psychological benefits. So next time you feel sad, turn up the sad music because research shows that it has benefits!


Works Cited

  1. Sachs, Matthew E., et al. “The Pleasures of Sad Music: a Systematic Review.” Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2015,
  2. Hanich, J., Wagner, V., Shah, M., Jacobsen, T., & Menninghaus, W. (2014). Why we like to watch sad films. The pleasure of being moved in aesthetic experiences. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 8(2), 130-143.
  3. Vuoskoski, Jonna K., and Tuomas Eerola. “The Pleasure Evoked by Sad Music Is Mediated by Feelings of Being Moved.” Frontiers, Frontiers, 9 Mar. 2017,
  4. Taruffi, Liila, and Stefan Koelsch. “The Paradox of Music-Evoked Sadness: An Online Survey.” PLOS Medicine, Public Library of Science, Oct. 2014,


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