Listening to Morrissey Can Put a Smile on Your Face

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For many of us, listening to sad music is enjoyable—even uplifting.

By Nathan Collins

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John Cusack as Rob Gordon in High Fidelity. (Photo: Touchstone Pictures)

“Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable,” asks Rob Gordon, the music-obsessed protagonist of Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, “or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?”

Well, Rob, science has a surprisinganswer for you. Sure, some of the time “I Know It’s Over” comes on the radio and we descend into Morrissey-induced melancholy. And heaven knows sometimes when we’re miserable we put on a particularly poignant song to cry it out. But for many of us, listening to sad music is an enjoyable experience—one that can even make everything seem better.

Hoping to understand why some people are drawn to sad music, why some people enjoy it, and why still others want nothing to do with it, Durham University music professor Tuomas Eerola and his colleagues asked 2,436 people across three surveys in the United Kingdom and Finland about their most memorable experiences with sad music.

Here, in honor of Rob and his misery, are the researchers’ top five results:

  1. Memorable experiences with sad music fell into three categories, which Eerola and his team dubbed grief-stricken, sublime, and comforting sorrow. The first was associated exclusively with negative emotions, such as anxiety, feelings of powerlessness, and self pity. Comforting sorrow evoked tenderness, peacefulness, and, of course, comfort. Sublime sorrow conjured transcendence, wonder, and even joy.
  2. About half of people listened to sad music in response to difficult situations in life, such as death, divorce, illness, or other personal setbacks, although substantial portions of those surveyed had a memorable experience with sad music by chance—for example, when a sad song came on the radio—or had actually sought out sad music for comfort’s sake.
  3. The exact numbers varied across the three surveys, but in each a substantial proportion—between 20 and 50 percent—reported having physical reactions to music, most often goosebumps or crying.
  4. Large numbers of people felt better after listening to sad songs. Again, the numbers varied depending on the survey, but between 40 and 80 percent of people reported being in a better mood after hearing sad music.
  5. Factors like age and gender make a difference. Younger people and especially women were more likely to report a memorable experience in the grief-stricken sorrow category. Interestingly, the more musical training people had, the more likely they were to experience sublime and comforting sorrow.
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