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Your Playlist for Life Change

Pipe down, Rocky theme song—psychologists say melancholy music cheers us up

Elton John performs at the Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, October 1975
Elton John performs at the Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, October 1975,

by Sarah Mahoney

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True confessions: I may be smiling when I have my headphones in, but my personal playlists are loaded with sad songs, and always have been. Turns out I’m completely typical—sad tunes serve an important emotional purpose for most people.

Why, when people put so much emphasis on feeling happy, do sad songs become so beloved? Researchers from Berlin who studied this paradox discovered that a weepy song serves four purposes: It rewards our imagination; it helps us regulate our emotions; it builds empathy; and perhaps best of all, it has zero “real life implications.” These last two benefits we get only from music we interpret as sad, never happy songs.

"One of the most interesting findings of this study is that sad music, besides sadness, brings up a wide range of complex and partially positive emotions,” says Liila Taruffi, a researcher in the psychology of music at the Free University of Berlin. Those include nostalgia, peacefulness, tenderness, transcendence and wonder. “This helps to further explain why the experience of sad music is appealing and pleasurable for most people and opens intriguing possibilities for the use of sad music in music therapy.”

Among the sad songs mentioned most by the 800 study participants: Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata,” Barber’s “Adagio for Strings Op.11,” Johnny Cash’s “Hurt,” Metallica’s “Fade to Black” and my personal favorite, Adele’s “Someone Like You.”

Music can help us sort out complex feelings in times of change. Taruffi says one of her favorites is "Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten," written by the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt. “Although the melody itself is very easy, the piece is incredibly expressive and intense,” she says, and she especially loves the way it starts and ends with silence. When she’s mulling big questions, “it has helped me to connect to deep feelings by creating a safe space for reflection.”

No need to take the researchers’ word for it, when you can always invoke one of the world’s masters, Elton John. Besides his classic weepers like “Candle in the Wind” and “Daniel,” he wrote a gem with a chorus that puts it right out there: “Sad songs say so much.”

Photo Credit: Terry O'Neill/Getty