Why sad songs?

       “Me and you are subject to the blues now and then
       But when you take the blues and make a song
       You sing them out again” -Neil Diamond

As long as we’re on the general subject of mysteriously aesthetic experiences, why do most people get such intense pleasure and satisfaction out of listening to extremely sad songs? From a purely logical perspective, it would be reasonable to think that listening to such a song would be depressing.

Yet as we all know, quite the opposite is true. I know I can listen to Leonard Cohen singing “Famous Blue Raincoat” all day long, or Billie Holiday singing “Gloomy Sunday”, or Sinatra singing “Blues in the Night”, or Jeff Buckley singing “Hallellujah”, or almost any version of “Hurt”, whether by Trent Reznor, Johnny Cash or Sad Kermit.

Why does immersion in such woe and misery make us so happy? Is it simply emotional catharsis, as Neil Diamond suggests? Or is there something else at work?

4 thoughts on “Why sad songs?”

  1. Hmm. All of the commentary we have so far referenced in this discussion has been from song lyrics. Unquestionably Mr. Diamond and Mr. Taupin are experts in the art of song-writing. But isn’t it curious that the substantive part of our philosophical conversation is taking place entirely within songs?

  2. (I’m sure there is a song that answers this—but I couldn’t think of one offhand 😉

    I think that emotional catharsis is probably part of it. I’ve noticed that at the times in my life when I’ve been saddest I actually cannot stand to listen to really sad songs or watch really sad movies. (I had to walk out of a movie once because the emotions that resonated were too raw to have amplified at that time.) For me, art that evokes sadness works better when there is some distance, so that it can bring back the emotions at a time when I can process them, and then get some relief from them. I guess a related effect is that the sad song (or movie, etc.) usually lets you indulge in the intensity of the emotion with the background understanding that your own real life is comparatively much better, giving a feeling of happiness or satisfaction.

  3. Personally, I have to confront sadness in order to get through it. Sad music (or sad art in general) acknowledges pain, brings emotions to the surface, then offers a way out. Listening to happy music doesn’t work when I’m sad because it’s like trying to forget my problems without working through them. I’d guess that sad music is satisfying when we’re happy because it reminds us that everyone feels sad sometimes, so we don’t have to worry about losing our happiness when we have it because sadness is a normal feeling that doesn’t last. Talking and singing about it regularly makes it feel like less of a big deal when it happens to us.

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