Why Do We Love Sad Music? Mourning Our Pain

 As an experiment, my son and I asked the following question on Facebook Looking for the sad song you love to listen to when you’re down. Open to any and all genres.

We received 71 responses in 24 hours. Each person sent their go-to music, or even long playlists. All were very enthusiastic about this question. Surprisingly people put on music that matches their sad mood rather than music to cheer them up. Paradoxically, it doesn’t depress us more, it is comforting. People chose music that fits with their mood. By entering the mood space one is ensconced in the resonance of feeling. One is at home, is encompassed and feels held.

Let’s say a loved one has died, or maybe you are going through a bad break up or a divorce. If you are sad, unhappy, feeling miserable, what music do you choose. Sad music carries us deep inside sadness itself. In a state of mourning one needs to feel the pain. One needs not to be alone. One needs emotional holding. One needs a loving community. One also needs a private space for meditative reflection. One needs time.

Music is both a communal and personal experience. It both joins us together and allows for personal space and time.

Consciousness  is a synthetic illusion created by the brain. Communication can only take place indirectly, never directly. The way we communicate is through art forms: language, physical gestures, reading and writing, visual art, music, writing, theater, prose, poetry, and dance. It is how my consciousness connects to your consciousness. If we cortically, share the same symbolic codes of an art form, I can express my imagination and feeling expressively, and you can receive my imagination and feeling receptively. When you read this article your brain reads these 26 black symbols on a white page. You receive what I express and fulfill it with your imagination. These symbols operate through our deeply learned visual and auditory mastery of language via reading and writing,

Regarding language, if you and I both master English then we can communicate through the learned art form of speech. If I only speak English and you Russian, it will sound like gibberish. We need shared, learned symbolic form. It is the same with music. If you and I both share the same symbolic code for scales, we can communicate expressively and receptively via music. Music unlike most other art forms has no visual referent. It always creates feeling and mood. Music proceeds through the auditory centers, and always through the amygdala and limbic system. Through creating a mood you can indirectly paint a visual picture which you can invent with your own imagery.

Our narrow focus is on sadness. The mourning of a loved one’s death is the specific and literal biological operation for the repair and healing of emotional pain. The mourner must face and go through the pain of all the feelings from losing his old attachment. This process digests and deactivates the loss of a deeply held old play where the loved one is present, in order to accept a new play where the loved one is gone. To digest the old story and mourn those feelings takes a long time, from one to many years. One has to go through the Kubler-Ross stages of Denial,  Bargaining, Anger, Sadness and Acceptance. The specific stage where sad music works its magic is of course Sadness. This is contingent on the musician and the mourner having learned the same symbolic form for the scales.

By being immersed and held in the art trance of sad music, we feel the sadness.

It surrounds us, it enters inside us. We feel. We feel the painful longings, the painful loss. The mourner has to let go of his deeply held old play of love where he is not alone. He has to move towards accepting the  new play where the loved one will never be here again. The mourner has to traverse wanting to remain with the loved one in death in order to come back to the land of the living. He has to accept the new play where the loved one is gone and he is alone. Then he can properly carry the old play in memory. He can feel and miss the lost love without demanding the old story. One never completely heals from significant loss. The old play always lives inside, deactivated, but it’s there. Sad music will always touch us and bring back the nostalgia of loss. The sad music meets your emotional state and allows for the mourning. It holds you and allows it to happen.

How does music penetrate to the receptive insides of the mourner? The two major scales in western music are the Major scale and the Minor scale. The only difference in the major and minor scales is a the minor scale has a diminished 3rd,6th, and 7th. That’s it. Yet these changes in the scale makes all the difference in the world. Scales create mood. The major scale communicates the heroic –  Beethoven’s 3rd, Eroica’; The minor scale, when soft, communicates sadness – ‘Eleanor Rigby’, by The Beatles; When loud it communicates anger – ‘Why Go’, by Pearl Jam. Schubert routinely shifts between major and minor – ‘The Trout Quintet’ in A minor. The blues scale, the pentatonic scale embodies the pain of aloneness and loss – ‘The Sky is crying’ by Elmore James; Unresolved notes convey suspended feeling. Blue in Green, by Miles Davis.

Music aids us in mourning our pain. It’s why we listen it. It’s good to give over to the healing and restorative power of music. It is good to take in the communal holding of sad feeling. It is good to go inside to the depths of your own heart to meditatively process your private pain alone. My son and I now have a powerful list of sad music from Facebook. Featured ones are ‘Hallelujah’, by Jeff Buckley; Prelude in E-Minor, by Chopin; and ‘Stars’, by Nina Simone (see below). Two of my own favorites are  ‘Adagio for Strings by Barber’, and ‘Whispering Pines’ by the BandBut I’m sure you have your own. What are they?

Jeff Buckley – Hallelujah:

Chopin – Prelude in E-Minor:

Nina Simone – Stars

2 replies
  1. Shannon Lavell
    Shannon Lavell says:

    Dear Dr. Berezin Your work so resonates with my thinking and experience and research. I love your take on the theatre and play of consciousness, with mourning as key…

    Now the music that held my birth family together included what I now refer to as our Family Anthem, the old tune “Side by Side” . This version by Kay Starr is jazzy and happy, and the lyrics are a good contradiction to feeling lonely. https://youtu.be/ELcF3eVnVdw Please not there is 21 second delay until the music plays on this YouTube recording.
    We sang often together, as my grandmother was a real musician. We sang on long road trips. And I sang this song to my children often at bedtime. Then two years ago on my 61st birthday, my son, age 34, called me long distance during a performance with one of his “swing” bands and I listened while my son sang and he and his band played Side by Side.

    The tears that come are so about the memories and family connections and the love and fun we shared, and “through all kinds of weather”.

    Thank you for your great contribution to psychotherapy. I bought your book today and look forward to reading it shortly!!


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