Sad songs say so much


“Sad songs say so much”, sang Elton John in 1984 in one of his most beloved songs. The beginning of the song was like this:

“Guess there are times when we all need to share a little pain

And ironing out the rough spots

Is the hardest part when memories remain

And it’s times like these when we all need to hear the radio

`Cause from the lips of some old singer

We can share the troubles we already know.


And it looks that way. We often choose to listen to a particular piece because that music conveys the same emotion that we are experiencing or because we identify with the text, we associate it with people or events that are real to us. In general, we can say that the music expresses a message in which we identify ourselves. If we feel sad, we will feel the need to share our sadness by listening to sad music.

More and more sad songs are written

In research conducted a few years ago by psychologist E. Glenn Schellenberg and sociologist Christian von Scheve on behalf of the American Psychological Association, the most important professional organization of American psychologists, more than a thousand of the most successful songs of the 1960s and 2000s have been analyzed. In particular, they focused on the Top 40 pieces (that of Billboard magazine) of the years 1965-69, 1975-79, 1985-89, 1995-99, and 2005-09. The rhythm of the songs was measured by beats per minute and their tonality was determined by musicians. In cases where a song presents both the minor and the major mode the song has been classified according to the predominant tonality.

What has emerged is that the lyrics of these songs have become increasingly negative and even the music has acquired an increasingly sad sound. With the passage of time the duration of the songs has increased and the songs in minor key, used for more sad and introspective songs, have more than doubled. If in the second half of the sixties the songs in minor key were only 15 percent, in the year 2000 they were almost 56 percent. Even the rhythm of the songs is slowed down, the songs that we can define uniquely cheerful have decreased and those that mix moments of joy and sadness have increased.

The slowdown in rhythm is more pronounced in songs in greater tonality, indicating a general decrease in uniquely cheerful songs and an increase in songs with varying emotional states and that mix moment of cheerfulness to sadness.

The research has shown that the lyrics of the greatest pop hits have become increasingly negative and focused on the ego but that even the music has acquired an increasingly sad sound and with greater emotional nuances.

The effect of a sad song on our mood

The psychologists and researchers Annemieke Van den Tol and Jane Edwards have conducted studies to try to feeling deflatedexplain why when people feel sad they are inclined to listen to melancholic music. It has emerged that the very onset of a state of mind of unhappiness gives rise to the desire to listen to these kinds of songs.

Their research examined the motivations described by people when they decide to listen to music they call sad at times when they experience negative circumstances and moods of depression and found that listeners choose sad music basically for four reasons:

  • sharing a state of mind, helps us in the process of acceptance, support and can have an empathic function. This often happens in a special way in teenagers who use music as a shelter to their mood. Moreover, knowing it is shared by several people (think for example of a concert) gives a sense of communion that helps not to feel alone in difficulties
  • the message contained in the song allows the negative sentiment to be reflected in a new way, for example by encouraging to react and to move on;
  • re-enactment of memories, relive memories and past moments;
  • aesthetic value, it also seems that people who experience a state of mind of sadness are inclined to prefer listening to music with a high aesthetic value. This would be explained as a form of distraction and cognitive revaluation; an emotional adjustment strategy that attempts to change the meaning attributed to the event that caused us a certain state of mind. After a negative event, one would then consciously seek music with high aesthetic value to improve one’s mood.


Sad songs help us to reflect unlike the cheerful ones that bring us carefree feelings.

They help us to face the difficulties of life. A bit like reading a book or watching a film that tells a dramatic story, beyond the feeling of melancholy, they always leave us a useful lesson.

Some scientific research holds that at the neurological and biochemical level try concussion stimuli the release of well-being hormones, such as oxytocin and prolactin. A reaction similar to the relief felt after a cry.

Other studies claim, instead, that listening to sad music is linked to a pure psychological pleasure that comes from having experienced the whole range of possible emotions, even those less pleasant.

The fact is, we like sad songs. Perhaps simply because they remind us how useless it is to try to always remove melancholy and how important it is to feel alive and, therefore, human.

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