Why Sad Music is Cheering

sad musicThere’s been a flurry of stories in the press in response to a study that “reveals” the fact that sad or melancholy music provides consolation to human beings. There are references in these stories to the concept of “nostalgia;” a quote from the study itself states this:

Surprisingly, nostalgia rather than sadness is the most frequent emotion evoked by sad music. Correspondingly, memory was rated as the most important principle through which sadness is evoked. Finally, the trait empathy contributes to the evocation of sadness via contagion, appraisal, and by engaging social functions. The present findings indicate that emotional responses to sad music are multifaceted, are modulated by empathy, and are linked with a multidimensional experience of pleasure.


Well, science sometimes makes so complicated those truths which are so very simple. “Nostalgia”: sure we all like that, but to this long-established listener to sad music, the most overwhelming fact as to why it is consoling, even and especially in those darkest moments, is that that its mere existence confirms for the listener that someone else has felt these same feelings before. The reality that in your melancholy you are not alone: this is the single most comforting and inspiring aspect of “sad music.”

What would or could we do without it?

(Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris from the album Grievous Angel.)