Uplifting Tunes

When you're down and tired, turning to music for support can help uplift your mood.

Everyone has had those moments where we have lost all hope, our energy is drained, and giving up seems like the only option. We’re tired and down, and want time to freeze so we can catch a break for once. We feel as if no one is on our side. One of the most common things to do while feeling down is listen to sorrowful music, but have you ever wondered why?

We all have “that” playlist, the one filled with melancholy songs that we listen to any time we are down and want to hide from the world. We use others’ sadness to help us get through our own, but wouldn’t it make more sense to use happy, upbeat songs to liven our mood? Or do we just not want to feel alone? There have been several studies conducted by psychologists that explain why we tend to listen to somber songs when we’re down. 

One such study was conducted at Durham University in the UK, involving 2,436 people. While conducting this study, three main reactions stood out: pain, pleasure, and comfort. Listening to somber music can sometimes bring back memories, which most likely triggers one of those reactions. 

At Curtin University in Australia, psychologist Adrian North brought a new idea to this topic. North believes that there are two groups of possible explanations: one from social psychology, and one from cognitive neuroscience.

From social psychology stems two ideas. The first idea is that we feel better about ourselves when we hear someone else’s story. “…we feel better about ourselves if we focus on someone who’s doing even worse, a well-known process known as downward social comparison.Downward social comparison can help lift your mood, because hearing that someone is having a tougher time than you and is still moving forward can help you further believe that you will be okay. 

The second idea, is that people like to listen to music that represents their mood and living situation. When someone hears music that represents what they are going through, it can help to lift their spirits. When hearing music that matches their mood, the lyrics and rhythm will resonate with them. 

North’s second explanation includes the chemical processes in our minds. In our bodies is a hormone, prolactin, that helps one to deal with grief. Our bodies regularly produce prolactin, and when it is not used, it stays in our bodies, and can cause mood changes. Through the use of brain scans, it has been proven that listening to music releases dopamine, a neurotransmitter, that can be linked to the pleasure we get from listening to melancholy music. 

Researchers Annemieke Van den Tol and Jane Edwards found four different reasons why someone who is sad would listen to sad music. Those reasons are connection, message, high aesthetic value, and memory trigger. 

The first reason, connection, has to do with listeners better understanding their feelings after listening to a song that mirrors their current emotion. By listening to someone else’s story, it makes it easier for someone to fully understand how they are currently feeling, and what caused them to feel this way. When listening to sad music, someone is more likely to think about their current emotional state, whereas, when listening to upbeat music, one is less likely to think about the darker parts of their life. 

…we feel better about ourselves if we focus on someone who’s doing even worse, a well-known process known as downward social comparison”

Their second reason, message, has to do with the artist’s story. When listening to sad music, listeners are more likely to take the lyrics personally. While listening to upbeat music, listeners are more likely to listen without connecting with the lyrics. When listening to sad music, listeners are more prone to retain and connect with the lyrics. When listening to upbeat music you memorize the lyrics, but when you listen to sad music, you connect with the lyrics. 

Their third reason, high aesthetic value, has to do with using the beauty of melancholy music to cover one’s true feelings. Sad songs don’t just have powerful lyrics, but they also have powerful instrumentals that help to further set the mood. 

By listening to music with a good, calming beat, you can easily become distracted by listening and they will forget what was on their mind. Even though shielding your feelings behind music is a temporary fix, relying on music all the time can become dangerous, and can be seen as an avoidance strategy to get out of talking about your feelings. You have to eventually let them out and express them.

Their last reason, memory trigger, has to do with remembering certain times when you listened to certain songs. Hearing certain lyrics can trigger a memory you had, and can bring you back to a certain time in your life, whether it be good or bad. 

It is also normal for two people in a close relationship to have a common favorite song, and when one hears that song, they automatically think of the other person. If a relationship ends, it is common for one to listen to that song on repeat until they are over the other person, although, it is also common to avoid listening to that song, because it may bring back unwanted memories. 

Even though using soulful, melancholy music to help us overcome a hardship may provide us with the comfort we long for, it is not a permanent fix. Over time, using sorrowful music to help distract one from their current state can be very dangerous, and may cause their current emotional state to worsen.