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Study Finds Surprising Benefit To Listening To Sad Music

The red and orange sun sets over dark water
Kerry Sheridan
A sunset at Indian Beach, Sarasota, in 2018.

Sad songs. Why do we love them so much? And might they be bad for us? Especially for people with clinical depression?

Psychology researchers at the University of South Florida studied this question, and uncovered some surprising results.

"We study the ways that depression alters emotional behavior, emotion-related physiology and how those changes in emotion might relate to why people become depressed, why they stay depressed or why they recover from their disorder," said Jon Rottenberg, who directs the USF Mood and Emotion Lab

Another group of researchers had published a study in 2015. It found that depressed people preferred sad music over happy music, and suggested this might be keeping them down.

"The other scientists thought that on some level depressed people might find sadness more familiar or more comfortable and might wittingly or unwittingly do things to maintain that sad state. We were actually skeptical," said Rottenberg.

Jon Rottenberg and Sunkyung Yoon.
Credit USF Mood and Emotion Lab / USF
Dr. Jon Rottenberg, director of the USF Mood and Emotion Lab, and graduate student Sunkyung Yoon.

"It seemed unlikely to us that depressed people want to feel sad. I mean, depressed people are trapped in this kind of paralysis. Their mood state is extremely unpleasant. They go therapy and they say, 'I want to snap out of this.'" 

So, Rottenberg and graduate student Sunkyung Yoon designed their own experiment.

Seventy-six people enrolled. All were female undergraduates. Half had been diagnosed with clinical or persistent depression, meaning they had been depressed for at least two years. 

Rottenberg says they studied women only, in part, because depression is twice as common in adult women as in men. More studies could follow, involving men.

First, they allowed them to choose between different music clips. They steered away from popular songs, but chose classical music, including an upbeat sample of "Infernal Galop" by Jacques Offenbach.

Among the melancholy songs they chose was "Adagio for Strings" by Samuel Barber.

And just like the previous team of researchers, they found that indeed, the depressed people preferred sad music.

"It was quite a strong effect, this preference for sad music," said Rottenberg. 

Then they gave them a different task, which involved listening to sad music and reporting on how they felt afterward. And that's where the surprise came in.

"They actually were feeling better after listening to this sad music than they were before," said Rottenberg.

That's right--listening to sad music actually made them less sad. 

Yoon says sad music seems to have a calming effect.

"We cannot really assume that sad music is only sad. It can actually help your mood," she said.

The findings were published in February in the journal, Emotion. 

Yoon is continuing to study depressed people and the music choices they make on Spotify to better understand what they listen to and why. 

In the meantime, researchers say there's no need to feel bad about turning on your favorite sad jam.

I cover health and K-12 education – two topics that have overlapped a lot since the pandemic began.
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