Sad Songs

Upon waking this morning, I found myself thinking about sad songs, the sort of songs that are incredibly sad yet pleasurable to listen to. What is it about a sad piece of music that makes it so attractive? Are we drawn to a particular song or composition because it is tied to a memory of a person or a time, or because it is so musically resplendent that its melancholy character need not matter? Perhaps it is the universality of the song’s subject matter? Or maybe we identify with the song’s performer and are moved by the intensity of their performance, their unrestrained candour? To my mind, it is some combination of all of these things.

A recent Japanese study that sought answers to this very question came to the following conclusions:

“Music that is perceived as sad actually induces romantic emotion as well as sad emotion. And people, regardless of their musical training, experience this ambivalent emotion to listen to the sad music…Emotion experienced by music has no direct danger or harm unlike the emotion experienced in everyday life. Therefore, we can even enjoy unpleasant emotion such as sadness. If we suffer from unpleasant emotion evoked through daily life, sad music might be helpful to alleviate negative emotion.”

In other words, sad music is cathartic.

I can’t help but reflect on the motivation behind my “enjoyment” of certain sad songs. These songs cause me to feel overwhelmed, to temporarily lose myself in them, and all for different reasons.  Some of my sadness is informed by the song’s performer or the song’s place within a historical or narrative context. In “Strange Fruit” it is the anguish in Billie’s voice and the fact that the song was written after the song’s composer saw  a photograph of two black men who had been lynched, a lament-cum-protest against senseless hatred and racial inequality. Nirvana’s “All Apologies” is tragic, painful to listen to in the wake of Kurt Cobain’s suicide.”The World Spins” reminds me of the heartbreaking scene it underscored in the show Twin Peaks. Other songs however, remind me of what is lost, and what I will continue to lose, as time passes and I grow older. Listening to them is a bittersweet exercise in nostalgia.

Here’s my little sad song jukebox. Perhaps it won’t be quite as sad for you.


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