When my first serious boyfriend broke up with me the summer after I graduated high school, I was thoroughly and completely devastated. I made it my prerogative to fully experience the anguish of my first heartbreak by locking myself in my room, pouring over old photos, and writing tear-soaked love poems. I might have stayed in that room forever (or at least until the weekend) had one of my closest friends not shown up with just the thing for a broken heart – blank CDs.
Now I don’t think CDs are so far in our past that I have to explain them to anyone, do I? Google it if you must and while you’re at it look up audio cassette tapes which are, in my opinion, the most classic break up mix medium. Anyway, we headed up to my attic to my clunky family PC and burned one of the greatest mixes of all time named ‘Eleanor and Jamie’s Sad Mix’. I was good with titles even then.
This CD stayed with me through several subsequent heartbreaks until it grew too smudged and scratched to play even a single song all the way through. You might have thought that as I moved into my 20s the songs would start to feel a little dated, perhaps a little out of context, but no, they always did the trick. In fact, I thought they really grew better with age.
Since my first superficial heartbreak, I’ve unfortunately learned how much deeper the pain of true loss can cut. Fortunately, I’ve become far more proficient at coping with hardship than I was at the age of 17 (okay, okay – most of the time), but the one thing that has never changed is that when I feel down I always go back to my sad mix
tapes CDs digital playlists.
I know I’m not the only one who loves a good music-fueled cry. I just had a look around the shared playlists on Spotify – “Sad Love Songs”, “Sad Station”, “Sad Songs for Crying Yourself to Sleep” – so anecdotally – there are many of us. This is also reflected in the research. For example, a 2014 study found that people choose to listen to sad music and tend to like it more when they in the midst of emotional distress. So it’s a common coping mechanism, but is it effective?
Doesn’t it seem like listening to sad songs when you’re sad would make you even sadder? Well, I suppose, but only if you look at sadness as a purely and objectively negative experience which…it isn’t. Sadness, in general, is actually far more complex and, depending on the situation, is often linked with pleasant experiences like nostalgia, relief, calm, and awe.
Listening to sad music, in particular, has been linked with a number of positive experiences like nostalgia, imagination, empathy, peacefulness, tenderness, transcendence, and wonder. For participants living in Western cultures, nostalgia has been cited as the most common experience, which makes total sense. The most meaningful music is often related to memory which, as you know, commonly comes in the form of bittersweet nostalgia after a loss.
In another study, researchers found that 61-92% of their samples reported experiencing joyful sadness while listening to sad music, while 40-56% of participants reported experiencing distressing feelings like grief, loss, and hatred. I’m certain that many people’s experiences were mixed because grief is often defined by conflicting emotions. Many of the most comforting experiences and memories are a mix of happy and sad. Why should music be any different?
One final study, identified three different types of sadness experiences based on participant responses:
(1) Comforting Sorrow was associated with feelings of comfort, tenderness, peacefulness, and being sad but elated. People who experience comforting sorrow often spend time reflecting on the song’s lyrics and thinking about how they relate to other people, life situations, and/or social relationships.
(2) Sublime Sorrow was associated with feelings of transcendence, wonder, satisfaction, pleasant melancholia, and joy. This is often defined as a moving experience and it’s thought to be related to instrumental music or music where the lyrics aren’t meaningful or understood.
(3) Grief Stricken Sorrow is a type of sadness experience that is considered mostly negative. This experience is related to feeling downhearted, anxious, powerless, self-pity, and grief-stricken sadness. Like comforting sorrow, grief-stricken sorrow appears to be related to reflection on meaningful and/or familiar lyrics.
We see the experience of grief-stricken sorrow echoed in the expressions of some of our readers. Recently, when we asked people to share song suggestions for a grief playlist, several people remarked that they’ve had a very difficult time listening to music since their loved one’s death. We received many comments like “There are too many memories,” “I rarely listen to music anymore,” “It’s too sad,” and “I feel like I’ve lost music too.”
So for some people, listening to music may be more distressing than comforting and this can feel like a secondary loss. Though, based on what we know about grief, grief triggers, and continued bonds, there’s reason to hope that many people who experience music with grief-stricken sorrow in the early days of grief will eventually get to a place where they can not only listen to familiar music, but that they are also able to find comfort, tenderness, peace, and/or nostalgia in the experience.
With that, let’s finish where we started with a good-ole’ fashioned playlist full of songs submitted by our readers. A few days ago we asked our followers on Facebook and Instagram, “What is the saddest song on your grief playlist?” and we received over 300 responses! We’ve gathered most of the submissions (all those that we could locate) onto the Spotify playlist below. Only 100 of the 312 songs are listed here, so we recommend heading over to Spotify to check out the full list (the basic version of Spotify is free). Spotify users can follow this playlist, which we’ll continue to add to over time. Obviously, not all the songs on here will appeal to you, so we suggest creating your own playlist based on the suggestions that you like.
Keep your song suggestions coming in the comments below. Also, don’t forget to subscribe to receive our blog posts straight to your email inbox.