..and the art of sad music
Adele’s 30 is out. The first single “Easy on Me” was released about a month ago. But the whole album dropped a couple of days ago (11/19/21) and 30 is everything you expect an Adele’s album to be and more.
If you had listened to Easy on Me, you probably had an idea already on what kind of an immersive experience this album was going to be. Because this album deals with her divorce and her post-divorce life as a mom.
If Adele was a chocolatier, she would be making only the darkest chocolates, using bitter elements of her life and by compressing them into tiny morsels before melting them.
But why does Adele’s sad music appeal to people? And in general, why do sad songs appeal to many of us?
I will confess here. When I am alone, in an introspective or a reflective mood, and mindful of what I am listening to, I often seek for sad songs. One after another, till I reach some sort of an emotional high which usually ends up with me being in tears.
And I have often wondered why I do this.
Upon reading a little bit about the psychology of sad songs, I have understood that I am not alone.
One of the main reasons people enjoy sad songs is because these songs profoundly “move” us. Feeling moved can involve chills, loss, goosebumps, and a flood of other emotions including romantic ones, a warmth in our chest, and elation.
James Baldwin noted somewhere:
“The things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.”
I think, feeling moved is really that. It comes from a place of we feeling closer to other people. Which is why some studies point to the fact that people who enjoy sad music tend to have “high empathy”.
Feeling moved can also result from memories. For example, Adele’s songs can be powerfully nostalgic for a few. It may be nostalgia, rather than sadness, that they enjoy when they listen to Adele songs.
According to a study, when people listen to sad music, only a small percentage say they actually feel sad. The remainder experience other, often related emotions, most commonly nostalgia. Nostalgia helps increase our sense of social connectedness and perhaps reduce our anxiety.
Then there is biology. There is a theory that says that sad music is linked to the hormone prolactin, which is associated with crying. Sad music tricks the brain into engaging a compensatory response by releasing prolactin. Since in this situation there is no real traumatic event you are grieving for, the body is left with a pleasurable mix of opiates with nowhere else to go. Prolactin produces feelings of calmness to counteract mental pain.
Music also has the ability to provide company and comfort. Sad music can be interpreted as an imaginary friend who provides support and empathy. Maybe those who enjoy sad musuc enjoy the mere presence of a virtual person, represented by the music, who is in the same mood and can help cope with the same feelings.
Ultimately, Adele’s songs — in particular sad songs, could and will mean something different to each listener. But to all of us, Adele’s songs say — “you are not alone in whatever you are feeling”. These songs share our sufferings, romance, loss, pain, and connect with others from the past and the present.
And there is something beautiful about that communal sharing among humanity.