Is sad the new happy? What brands can learn from sad songs

January 8, 2014

A moment of self-reflection

When The National released “Trouble Will Find Me” a few months back, I jumped straight onto NME.COM to read the review - ”After five albums of angst, heartbreak and social inadequacy, The National are no closer to finding peace”. A rating of 8/10.

Bingo! I couldn’t wait to listen it.

Then came a moment of self-reflection. Am I some sort of masochist? Why would I want to listen to this?

Hold on. Much of my favourite music is ‘sad’. Often songs littered with themes of despair, struggle and anguish, composed by artists in some of their darkest moments.

Take Justin Vernon’s (Bon Iver) “For Emma, Forever Ago” recorded during three months of solitude living in a cabin in Wisconsin, after the break up with his then girlfriend and band. " All of his personal trouble, lack of perspective, heartache, longing, love, loss and guilt that had been stockpiled over the course of the past six years, was suddenly purged into the form of song." Bon Iver Bio (

Depressing huh? Well this tragedy and sorrow made Rolling Stone’s Top 100 albums of the 00's list with many other stirring classics from the likes of Radiohead, Sigur Ros, Wilco and Ryan Adams.

The sad music contradiction

As humans we constantly strive for happiness in our lives. With most of the decisions we make driven by our simple desire to maximise pleasant emotions and avoid unpleasant ones. Yet, according to Huron (2011), 50% of the population enjoys listening to ‘sad’ songs.

This appears to be a strange contradiction and begs the question – does sad music actually make us feel sad?

Sadness can make you feel good

A study last year by Tokyo researcher Kawakami tackled the paradox of sad music. What was revealed is that there’s a difference between emotions perceived in sad music to the ones we actually feel. According to his research we perceive the sadness of sad music, but experience both sadness and pleasure when we listen to it. In fact, sad music actually left participants in his study feeling positive and even more romantic.

So sadness, particularly experienced through arts such as music, should no longer be considered as only an unpleasant emotion that we avoid. Rather, for at least half of us, quite the opposite.

Theories on sadness and why it resonates

There are a few theories to why people enjoy listening to sad music.

Shared pain

Levitin (2008) claims that musical sadness serves to ‘[bring] us through stages of feeling understood, feeling less alone in the world, hopeful that if someone else recovered so will we’. All of which are pretty positive outcomes for those who are already experiencing sadness.


For those who may not be feeling so down, the emotion experienced through sad music has been coined ‘pseudo-sadness’ (Huron, 2011). Meaning we can explore the feeling of sadness vicariously. We can feel it without the consequence of living it. We can connect to James Blunt’s ‘Goodbye my lover’ but still be happily married with two kids.

But why do we want to experience ‘pseudo-sadness’?

- Catharsis

Catharsis, according to psychoanalytic theory*, is an emotional release linked to our need to relieve unconscious emotional conflicts. It’s like going for a run when you’re stressed or angry, you project the energy into your exercise rather than into other parts of your life.

With sad music, we project into the music and as such avoid sadness in our personal lives. 
In this way, sad music is a means of helping people deal with their negative emotions. Consider it an emotional leveler.

- We rarely experience sadness

Last September on Late Night with Conan O'Brien, comedian Louis C.K. explained, in a way that was funny enough to make it digestible for mainstream TV, that life is unavoidably sad. We all experience death, uncertainty, loneliness and emptiness. Yet our culture distracts us from feeling sadness and despair. Louis theorises that being continually connected in today’s digital world prevents us from being alone, and as such we rarely get to experience true sadness.

“You need to build an ability to just be yourself and not be doing something. That's what the phones are taking away, is the ability to just sit there. That's being a person. Because underneath everything in your life there is that thing, that empty - forever empty. That knowledge that it's all for nothing and that you're alone. It's down there.”

Full on, I know, but if you have five minutes, it’s well worth watching his uncomfortably funny genius:

Louis’ gratefulness to sometimes feel sad -  “Sadness is poetic. You’re lucky to feel a sad moment” – is truly insightful and may explain why sad music can feel like such a rich experience.

Louis’ hilarious anecdote about driving his car listening to Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Jungleland’ draws upon the next theory of prolactin.

- Getting high on Prolactin

According to Huron (2011) when you experience sadness your body releases a hormone called prolactin. It is this hormone which is associated with feelings of tranquility and calmness, which prevents your grief from getting out of hand.

However, when listening to sad music the sadness may not be real. There is no grief or pain. When the music stops you haven’t actually been dumped , and you don’t miss your ex, but your body has been left with a nice little hit of prolactin.

- Sad music conveys authenticity and emotional intelligence

Schellenberg  (2006) analysed every Top 40 US hit from 1965 to 2006. His results suggested that in the first half of the 00’s there were more than twice as many hit sad songs that there were in the latter half of the 1960s.

Schellenberg  (2006) explains the trend by sad music’s relationship to modern life - “Life is more complicated, and they want the things that they consume as pleasure to be complex similarly."

From a cultural perspective, it’s interesting to note that this growth in popularity through the 90’s and 00’s aligns with a time of societal instability and women’s empowerment, which gave rise to our emotional intelligence ideals. To this point Schellenberg contends "that people like to think that they're smart. And unambiguously happy-sounding music has become, over time, to sound more like a cliché”. In other words, happy music lacks authenticity. Or as NPR aptly put it – “It’s too Brady Bunch, not enough Modern Family”.

Sadness and brands

Whatever theory holds true as to why so many people enjoy listening to sad music, what is apparent is that sadness is an emotion that is rarely leveraged by brands.

Government, social, charity and insurance categories have been using sadness for years, tapping into this powerful emotion in an attempt to help people avoid real life tragedy and pain; like terminal illness caused though smoking. The Quit Vic “Last Dance” gets me every time:

But what sad ads can you recall in consumer goods categories?

It appears we have an obsession with communications that make us laugh, surprise and delight, or give us hope we can take on the world. Herein lies an opportunity for marketers.

How about making your consumer cry? Or at least feel a little sad. Step away from the idyllic and recognise the imperfection of life, and the heartache and sorrow we all endure. It may just leave us feeling peaceful, or intelligent, or grateful.

Not convinced? Here are a couple ‘sad’ commercials for your enjoyment:



Cover image source: Flicker user: moominsean

The National Album Cover - image source:

Brady bunch image source:

Modern family image source: