When everything is going wrong, there’s nothing like listening to a few melancholy bars of your favorite sad song.
Buy why do we find pleasure in sad music? If the goal is to stay upbeat, why would we ever choose to listen to, say, Adele’s “Someone Like You” over Pharrell Williams’ “Happy”?
The conundrum puzzled two researchers at the Freie Universität Berlin in Germany who set out to explore our affinity for sad songs in a world where entire industries exist to help us eliminate sadness from our lives.
Their study— based on a survey of more than 770 people around the world and published this month in the journal, PLOS ONE — discovered sad music can evoke positive emotions, like peacefulness and tenderness, and offers four distinct rewards for choosing that weepy ballad on your iPod.
"People turn to sad music for comfort, and to deal with bad feelings, but also simply for pleasure," Liila Taruffi, one of the authors, told TODAY.
"(Sad music has) potential to regulate negative moods and emotions, as well as to provide consolation... In this sense, sad music can play a role in well-being."
1. The biggest reward turned out to be that sad songs allow you to feel sadness without any of its “real-life implications.” In other words, you can safely explore what it’s like to be a little blue without experiencing the intense grief of mourning a loved one, for example.
2. “Emotion regulation” was another important reward. Many respondents said that when they were in a bad mood, experiencing sadness through music made them feel better afterwards and provided an emotional boost. That may be because the songs help them to express and release their emotions, Taruffi noted.
"Sad music promotes and creates a space for reflection and reappraisal of personal experiences, thoughts and feelings," she added.
3. The reward of “imagination” allowed listeners to feel as though they could express themselves as richly as the mournful music.
4. The “empathy” reward made the listener feel good by allowing him to share the sadness of another human being through the song.
And while you may enjoy Rihanna's "Stay" any time, it seems sad songs are particularly crucial during certain periods of our lives.
Hands down, we listen to sad music most often when we are in emotional distress, “in most of the cases due to a lost relationship”, the authors found, noting the music can help us vent our feelings or console us in those situations.
“The appreciation of sad music is enhanced” after an argument with a loved one or a break-up, they write.
The second-most popular time to seek out sad music is when we’re having social problems, like when we’re feeling lonely, homesick or missing someone – in those moments, the songs can offer comfort by showing someone else shares our state of mind, the study found.
The third top reason for listening: Sad songs can trigger cherished memories of past events.
Indeed, nostalgia was the most frequent emotion evoked by sad music in the survey, followed by peacefulness, tenderness and then sadness.
"However, as our study shows, music-evoked sadness can also be experienced as a pleasant emotion, differently from 'everyday sadness,'" Taruffi said.
Many people also reported feeling wonder and transcendence after listening to melancholy ballads.
So it turns out Elton John was right: Sad songs do say so much.