Don’t turn to upbeat songs next time you’re feeling down—instead, tune into ballads that match your melancholy mood.
A study published this month in PLOS ONE showed that sad music actually helped listeners muster up positive feelings in response. Researchers at Freie Universitat Berlin surveyed more than 770 adults to find out how often they listened to and what situations prompted them to listen to sad music. Researchers also asked participants about the types of emotions evoked by sad music—the most popular were tenderness, peacefulness, or nostalgia.
The researchers then found that the most important reward of sad music was the ability to experience sadness without any “real-life” implications—when the song is over, you haven’t had any actual loss or distress. Participants also experienced strong feelings of empathy after listening to sad music, and could sympathize and relate with the singer.
The data suggested, unsurprisingly, that most people find sad music comforting during relationship troubles—hence the popularity of “break-up playlists.” In fact, subjects said that sad music helped them regulate a bad mood. In contrast, most people listened to happy music during a party or as background music—such as when traveling or doing work. In those circumstances, no mood regulation is needed—cleaning your room or taking a road trip generally aren’t times when you need a major mood boost.
No matter the state of mind when people began listening to sad music, all factors pointed to it having a positive effect on their moods and well-being. In fact, a study published last year in Frontiers in Psychology found that sad music induced romantic emotions, not sad ones.
“If sad music actually evokes only unpleasant emotion, we would not listen to it,” those researchers wrote.