“The most authentic thing about us is our capacity to create, to overcome, to endure, to transform, to love and to be greater than our suffering.”
— Ben Okri
Listening to sad music after losing a loved one, being diagnosed with a terminal illness, or finalizing a divorce might seem counterintuitive, but this somber sounding activity has been proven to help.
Nothing can prepare you for grief, nor is there a right or wrong way to deal with it, but sad music is an easily accessible and highly effective tool that can help you begin to heal.
In this article we look at a number of scientific studies that prove just how effective sad music is at ameliorating the grief felt after experiencing a loss of any kind. We’ll learn how listening to sad music can:
Regulate your emotions.
Engage the part of the brain responsible for nostalgia, peacefulness and tenderness.
Induce a release of prolactin, a hormone associated with calming and consoling.
We’ll also take a look at the famous “Five Stages of Grief” model and explain why it isn’t quite so simple. You can read by scrolling down the page or jump to the section that interests you by clicking on the links below:
WHY DO PEOPLE SEEK OUT SAD MUSIC
An online survey entitled Paradox of Music-Evoked Sadness, set out to determine why certain people actively seek and appreciate sad music. The conductors of the study, Stefan Koelsch and Liila Taruffi, focused their research around three main points;
1/ What are the rewarding aspects of music-evoked sadness?
The results of the study revealed that listening to sad music can lead to a variety of beneficial emotional effects including:
The regulation and facilitation of venting negative mood and emotions
2/ How do mood, personality and situational factors affect appreciation?
The number one situation that led people to chose to listen to sad music was emotional distress. Emotional distress refers to being in a negative emotional state and is usually caused by experiencing something devastating such as losing a loved one.
Listening to “sad music” is especially beneficial while experiencing emotional distress because music literally affects how we express emotion. Music stimuli travels through our ears and brain stem, eventually arriving into the hypothalamus and limbic system, the center of emotions. As music travels on the neurological pathway through our brain, it literally touches those parts that are responsible for our emotional behavior.
3/ What are the most frequent emotions elicited by sad music?
The study revealed that sad music elicited partially positive emotions in listeners. Nostalgia, surprisingly, was the most frequent emotion evoked by sad music, not sadness. Feelings of peacefulness, tenderness and wonder were also reported. Joy, however, remained the lowest reported emotion.
People who seek out sad music do so for three main reasons because they:
Want to be rewarded emotionally.
Are experiencing emotional distress.
Want to evoke partially positive emotions such as nostalgia and peacefulness.
THE LONELINESS OF GRIEF
Sadness from loss is an unfortunate side effect of being alive; though no one wants to, everyone must experience it eventually. According to The Pleasures of Sad Music by Matthew E. Sachs, the physical effects that sadness has on individuals include low energy, antisocial behavior, low self-worth and a narrow view of the future.
Listening to sad music, however, can help an emotionally distressed individual correct this imbalance and disengage from the distressing situation by instead focusing on the beauty of the music. Music pertaining to grief and sorrow is often perceived as more beautiful because it deals with things such as self-expression, social connectedness, and existential meaning.
Empathy is a strong trait in humans that plays a huge part in cooperating with co-workers, making friends and bonding with loved ones. Listening to sad music has the ability to evoke this lovely emotion, allowing you to find comfort in the fact that someone else out there has felt or is feeling the same way you are. Similar to participating in forums and group therapy, listening to sad music is an effective way to deal with grief and the loneliness that accompanies it.
Sad symptoms include: low energy, antisocial behavior and low self worth.
When listening to sad music, you become detached from your feelings of grief and instead focus on the beauty of the music.
Sad music has been proven to:
help regulate the severity of the individual’s “sad symptoms”
provide individuals with new ways of coping with sadness
connect individuals to others who may have experienced a similar loss.
PROLACTIN: THE ‘CHILL PILL’ HORMONE
Though the primary function of prolactin release, a protein hormone produced in the pituitary gland of mammals, is to initiate and sustain lactation, it is also released after an orgasm, before and during sleep, and when you are feeling sad.
David Huron’s study Why is Sad Music Pleasurable? A Possible Role for Prolactin set out to prove whether having a grief inducing experience, would release prolactin (thus helping the cortical, conscious part of the brain to rationalize the experience.) Because prolactin is also released when you listen to sad music, this prolactin rush explains why listening to sad music can sometimes feel cathartic or calming (whether you are experiencing emotional distress or not.)
Think of it like Mother Nature whispering words of comfort into your ear while giving you a tight squeeze.
While prolactin is a hormone that has calming effects, not everyone experiences a prolactin release while listening to sad music. Those who are more likely to experience it score higher in “openness” on personality tests.
If you are experiencing emotional distress, it can’t hurt to try listening to sad music as a coping mechanism. Even if you don’t experience a prolactin release, it won’t exacerbate your current sadness.
WHAT ABOUT THE FIVE STAGES OF GRIEF?
When we started looking into this project we were aware of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ 5 stages of Grief model. We thought it would be an interesting idea to produce a piece of music that matched each of the 5 stages:
Denial: Nothing seems real. You are in a state of shock. Your body is numb, face pale, knuckles white. At this stage, it’s natural to feel nothingness.
Anger: Your insides are red, thoughts negative, emotions disconnected. At this stage, it’s natural to feel abandoned and deserted.
Bargaining: You are making deals with God. If only you had done this or that differently, then the outcome would have been better. At this stage, it’s natural to feel guilt.
Depression: You are in the present moment, hyper aware of the loss at hand. At this stage, it’s natural to feel empty or hopeless.
Acceptance: You learn to live with your loss and acknowledge the fact that this is a permanent reality. At this stage, it’s natural to feel invigorated, like you have been given a new lease on life.
It was going to be a music2work2 album and Andrew started on it after his father died in 2015. The problem was, Andrew’s experience with Grief didn’t feel anything like the model. The idea that you can gradually progress through these different stages and pop out the other end whole and complete was completely at odds with his experience of grief.
Not Every Stage, Not Only Once
The first thing that struck Andrew was that he never felt any Anger during the process. His father had led a great and happy life and while the end was sudden it wasn’t totally unexpected, likewise there was no bargaining stage. And this was really confusing!
If all you know about grief is the popular “5 Stages of Grief” model – you get worried if you don’t experience the stages, if you’re not going through them like everyone else. We started doing research into other people’s experience and it seemed that no-one was following the model and it got us digging deeper.
It was only after researching more and reading this article by Russell Friedman and John W James of The Grief Recovery Institute, did we understand that Kubler-Ross actually developed these stages to help those who were recently diagnosed with a terminal illness. And I guess, when you look at the model from the perspective of your own imminent death – it makes a lot more sense.
Your Grief Is Unique
One of the Objectives with this project is to throw some light on the Kubler-Ross model and let people know that there isn’t one linear progression that we all go through when dealing with grief. And while there’s a certain logic to the 5 stages, know that for most people it looks more like the image above!
MUSIC TO GRIEVE TO
The loss of something that once meant everything is hard. It can be the loneliest thing you ever have to experience. It shakes your insides, rattles your bones, and forces you to pull strength from the depths of your being.
While sad music can’t bring your love, health, marriage, or job back, it can help you gracefully move through grief so that you can start looking forward more than you do looking back.
Music to Grieve to is a playlist designed to evoke sadness. It consists of different types of tracks, some instrumental, some with vocals and a story, but the one thing they have in common is a certain melancholy. Songs are added to the playlist on a regular basis so there is always something new as well as some old favorites. Follow the playlist on Spotify by clicking here.