The pleasures of sad music: A systematic review

Many people remember listening to music as a teenager and thinking “This song totally describes how I am feeling!” But was there ever a time that a lot of these songs were sad? Ever wonder if listening to sad songs is good or bad for you? Sachs, Damasio, and Habibi attempted to find this out in “The Pleasures of Sad Music: A Systematic Review.” The researchers found that actual sadness and musical sadness are processed in different parts of the brain. Felt, or actual, sadness is processed in the emotional center of the brain while evaluating musical sadness is processed in the lower parts of the brain and the lower auditory, or hearing, part of the brain.

Past research suggests that sad music can be pleasing in these three situations: when it is seen as non-threatening, when it is aesthetically pleasing, and when it benefits the listener by regulating mood, creating empathetic feelings (which means it could being up past memories). The current researchers found that pleasure resulting from listening to sad music, while supported by the past theories, may result from the individual feeling unbalanced in one way or another and seeking a stimulus to achieve balance. Achieving emotional/mental balance from music can work in two different ways:

  1. An individual feels a distressing situation or a negative mood and chooses to listen to aesthetically pleasing, sad music that matches their mood which results in a return to balance. Using the music to balance a painful mood/experience creates the pleasurable response.
  2. An individual feels a neutral mood, but is open to an experience and chooses to listen to aesthetically pleasing, sad music which results in a return to balance. Being open to a new experience and wanting a pleasing experience through the beauty of music leads to the pleasure response.

This study is important to music therapy because it shows that the sad music leads to a place of balance and is used in a healthy way. While sad music can be pleasing, “getting stuck” in the sad music and not achieving balance can lead to unhealthy behaviors. This article suggests using sad music to safely guide clients through emotions and using it to explore new activities, but all under the guidance of the music therapist. If you need more guidance or have questions about using music in your practice, please find and contact a local music therapist by visiting  


Jessica S. Fletcher, MM, MT-BC

Sachs, M. E., Damasio, A., & Habibi, A. (2015). The pleasures of sad music: A systematic review. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 9, 1-12.