Why Sad Songs Make Us Happy

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“Sad songs say so much,” Elton John once sang.

But what do they really say, and why do they speak to us?

Is it because they allow us to wallow and cry? Is it because they bring to life the inner hurt in us all? Or is something else going on?

In a recent study published in the journal “Frontiers of Psychology” researchers tried to find out. They played music in minor keys to participants. And what they found was that while participants could perceive music as sad or gloomy or tragic, what they really felt listening to the music were emotions they described as “romantic,” “fascinated” or even “animated.”

According to the authors, there may be a few reasons for this.

One, we might be experiencing the joy of “vicarious emotions” through sad music. In other words, sad music brings up feelings that are real, but also free us of the unpleasantness that would cause those feelings in real life.

Second, we might be experiencing sweet anticipation and delivery on that anticipation. In other words, we hear something sad, and expect it to make us feel a bit sad, and the satisfaction of our expectations being met makes us happy.

Jeff Spurgeon hears a lot of sad music—and happy music as well—as the morning host for WQXR. He shares his thoughts on this study and on sad music more generally. We also check in with listeners who share their favorite sad songs and the stories behind them.