It is thought that most people do not actively seek out sadness. Our assumption is that we have an innate drive strive for happiness and seek to minimise sad emotions. However, this is not always the case. Also, it certainly doesn’t explain the popularity of melancholy music. What psychological mechanisms are at play during the consumption of this genre? Why do we sometimes have the tendency to consciously choose sadness over joy? Importantly – can music therefore be used as a therapeutic tool in counselling?

One study (LeDoux, 1998) found that participants who felt depressed after listening to sad music later perceived more negative emotions (i.e. sadness or depression) in ambiguous facial expressions and less happiness in unambiguous facial expressions. This shows that music choices can have a profound effect on emotional functioning and recognition. Also, LeDoux (1989) found in a different study that participants who were asked to listen to sad music then rated their own qualities and characteristics lower than those who listened to happy music. These studies demonstrate how our music choices and preferences can hinder our emotional regulation. Does it therefore stand to reason that sad music always hinders positivity? Or is there another phenomenon at play? Although this research clearly outlines the negative effects of sad music, it does not explain why some individuals choose to listen to melancholy music.

From this research alone it would seem nonsensical for artists to produce and for consumers to buy into the concept of sad music. From an evolutionary perspective, we supposedly actively strive for safety and security. According to this approach, our aim is to flourish and promote our own psychological wellbeing, in order to have better survival chances. On a superficial level, it would appear that listening to sad music – with the support of the above research – is counterintuitive and goes against our innate evolutionary principles. However, this may not be the full story.

Van den Tol & Edwards (2015) evidenced the potential benefits of listening to melancholy music. Respondents to a survey reported that sad music choice was a positive self-regulatory tool when the music had perceived high aesthetic value. In other words, sad music that sounded calming or relaxing aided mood restoration. In a sense, the emotional context was therefore altered to suit the needs of the listener. The respondents that indicated that they choose to listen to sad music with the conscious intention of triggering painful or sad memories, unsurprisingly, correlated negatively with mood and emotional regulation. This indicates that people can make the decision to consciously evoke a negative mood. Indeed, in terms of therapeutic use, this may allow listeners to recreate an emotional context that allows them to work through previously suppressed thoughts and feelings.

Negative emotion triggering music may be a tool which allows people to go back through painful scenarios at one’s own pace, and emotionally work through the issues involved. Indeed, this can be done alone or – for more troubling emotions – with the assistance of a counsellor.

However, a study found that listening to sad music evokes polarised responses in listeners. Some report that sad music does genuinely create only feelings of sadness, whereas some listeners claim that sad music actually promotes positivity. The researchers contend that sad affect induced through sad music derives from both learned associations and cognitive mechanisms.  They found biochemical evidence for this phenomenon:

“Levels of the hormone prolactin increase when sad – producing a consoling psychological effect…high prolactin concentrations are associated with pleasurable music-induced sadness.”

In other words, sad music can feel deeply consoling and soothing. It can therefore provide a safe therapeutic space to work through unresolved troubles. However, it has been suggested that this is dependent on the listener’s personality attributes and the personal relevance of the music. Research by Vuoskoski and Eerola (2012) has proposed that reactions to sad music differ depending on whether the music is self-selected or chosen by the researcher. Self-selected music contributes to sadness through autobiographical memories. On the other hand, unfamiliar sad music was found to evoke trait empathy related sadness in listeners.

I would argue that emotional awareness must be a contributing factor to the concept of sad music choices. Music is emotionally rich and can be used to make sense of unpleasant and sad life experiences. The research highlights differing approaches to the phenomenon of sad music and demonstrates the vast personal and contextual mechanisms at play in music choice.

Vuoskoski et al (2012) contend that sad music can indeed illicit positive feelings of nostalgia, peacefulness, and wonder. I question perhaps if this can be explained by the notion of emotional congruence. In other words, we seek out emotional stimuli (i.e. music) which are congruent with our own emotional state – whether this exacerbates sadness or relieves the listener of negative emotions. Also, although evoking emotions alone to work through grief and pain may be somewhat therapeutic, for more troubling and intense emotions the assistance of a counsellor is necessary.


Huron, D. (2011). Why is sad music pleasurable? A possible role for prolactin. Musicae Scientiae, 15(2), 146-158.

LeDoux, J. (1998). The emotional brain: The mysterious underpinnings of emotional life. Simon and Schuster.

LeDoux, J. E. (1989). Cognitive-emotional interactions in the brain. Cognition & Emotion, 3(4), 267-289.

Van den Tol, A. J., & Edwards, J. (2015). Listening to sad music in adverse situations: How music selection strategies relate to self-regulatory goals, listening effects, and mood enhancement. Psychology of Music, 43(4), 473-494.

Vuoskoski, J. K., & Eerola, T. (2012). Can sad music really make you sad? Indirect measures of affective states induced by music and autobiographical memories. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 6(3), 204.

Vuoskoski, J. K., Thompson, W. F., McIlwain, D., & Eerola, T. (2012). Who enjoys listening to sad music and why?. Music Perception: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 29(3), 311-317.


Guest blog post by Madeleine Pownall, Opportunity 4’s assistant and writer.
Connect on Twitter: @maddi_pow or visit Madeleine’s blog