By Grace Ann Phillips

About

No matter who you are or your taste in music, we all have a go-to song or playlist for when we are feeling down. And for some reason it makes us feel better. Some of you may even be like me and purposefully turn on sad music to instigate time of self-reflection, emotional understanding, and to just to “feel.” Overtime, I realized that sad music quickly became my comfort. As my “All the Feels” playlist of Spotify made a permanent residency at the top of my recent listening history, I discovered how much I loved the feeling of feeling my emotions. Losing my father at a young age has made it hard for me as an adult to expose myself to my deeper feelings. Music puts me in a place where I feel safe to feel and express all of my inner demons.

Frontiers in Psychology did an experiment where they played minor-keyed and major-keyed music for a group of people and surveyed their emotional reaction. Results indicated than even though the minor-key music was judged as sadder than major-key music, it also indicated heightened romantic emotion and an increased state of meditation. Music has the ability to transform sadness from being unpleasant to being an outlet for a relaxed and comfortable experience.

In this blog, I hope to explore the emotional journey of sad music through both the artist’s and listener’s point of view. The journey of the artist and the listener can be mutually exclusive, taking the song in completely different directions, or the exact same, thriving off shared feelings and experiences. Because the success of sad music is so dependent on one’s personal journey with the song, I wanted to separate the artist and listener and investigate them individually—diving into both the emotional expression from an artist’s perspective and seeing, first-hand, the relationship between a listener and their favorite sad song.

 

Artist Point of View

 

I find the songwriting process fascinating. I love how every song, especially sad songs, have a unique origin story. Ranging from an outpour of personal feelings or simply being the right voice to portray the essence of something previously written, there is no “right way” to make a connection with your audience. Although, there is a level of bravery required to not only be aware of your sadness but share it with others. In the case young singer-songwriter and notoriously angsty teen, Billie Eilish, it requires a good family foundation. In a recent interview with New York Times Magazine, Eilish and her brother/songwriting companion, Finneas O’Connell, open up about the conflicting process of making her suicide-focused song, “Everything I wanted.” O’Connell states, “A lot of songs are written in retrospect, but this one felt like it was being written in real-time. This is something we’ve got to write on the other side of this hill,” despite Eilish’s desire to depict the raw realities of her battle with suicide. The completion and release of “Everything I Wanted” was, then, postponed until Eilish “was in a better place.”

On the other hand, the origin of Rascal Flatts’ heartbreak anthem “What Hurts the Most” is quite different. The writer of the song, Jeffrey Steele, notes on a radio segment with 94.9 Star Country called “Behind the Song" that the song was originally inspired by the loss of his father, but changed the meaning to more of a love song so as to be more “universal.” He continues, “When I first heard the music it was just so sad, so this is what I started singing.” I point out the differences between the creation of “Everything I Wanted” and “What Hurts The Most” to expose that, at the heart of it, the performance and the emotional portrayal given by the artists is the commonality among all hit sad songs.

Billie eilish and finneas words.jpg
This message appears before the beginning of the "Everything I Wanted" music video.

 

"For me, this is something that really allows the listener to feel connected because this is their outlet. The song is their outlet. Ya know, ‘I’m hurting deep down but can’t show it,’ but Logic can help me show it by playing this song. He’s letting it be known to the entire world forever how I feel in this moment.”- Logic

Logic's hit song "1-800-273-8255" is an example of how sad songs can be so much more dynamic than we think. Of course, there are those incredibly powerful songs where artists use personal trauma and self-expression as a way to create a connection between the artist and consumer. The listener feels their pain and relates to it. On the flip side, using Logic as an example, an artist can use a sad song as a vessel to bring hope and comfort to their listeners that may be experiencing something larger than what the artist, themselves, can personally relate to.

Listener Point of View

The overall impact and success of sad music comes from the perception of the listeners and the songs ability to bring the listener to a certain emotional place—whether relating to the origin story of the song or giving the lyrics a new meaning. A 2011 study done by Annemieke Van den Tol and Jane Edwards exploring why people listen to sad music indicates that people prioritize their connection to the music’s message, music that triggers memories, and the overall aesthetic of the song when choosing to listen to sad music. Sad music creates a base platform in which artists can connect, support, and inspire their listeners through vulnerability about life experiences. ​

 

I wanted to take Van den Tol and Edward’s study a step further by interviewing my best friend, Moira, and boyfriend, Grant, about their relationship with their favorite sad song. Rather than getting lackluster responses from strangers about their music, I chose to use my close relationships to create a foundation for conversations that went on to exceed my expectations in terms of self-reflection and vulnerability. I wanted to experience the music with them and watch the way sad songs can influence and bring forth emotion.

Moira

"Why" by Read Southhall Band
Before listening to "Why"
Before listening to "Why"

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During "Why"
During "Why"

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After listening to "Why"
After listening to "Why"

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Before listening to "Why"
Before listening to "Why"

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What does this song mean to you?

"This song reminds me that I’m not alone in my heartbreak and that everyone feels sad, I guess. I feel like Read Southhall Band puts my feelings into words that I couldn’t."

Why is this song your go-to over other sad music?

 

"I feel like a lot of sad songs, now-a-days, are still up-beat in a way, which can be kind of confusing. I like that this song is truly just sad the whole time. It speaks perfectly how it feels to be in my position and how hard it is to see someone you loved in everyday life."

Does this song intensify your sadness or give you a form of comfort?

"Honestly, kind of both. Like, if I want to cry, I can definitely pull this song out. But also, I’ll sing it in the car when I’m fed up and want to let it go."

When Moira first told me what her favorite sad song was, I felt like my heart melted into my shoes. “Why” by Read Southhall Band tackles the struggles of moving on from a breakup—which I knew rang immensely true for her and her past relationship. I also knew how hard of a topic this was for her, as I watched the wound of that breakup grow deeper and deeper over time. We listen to the song together and I hear the lyrics “Why can’t I love on and give a fair chance to someone new? Why can’t I fall out of love with you?” It then became so clear to me why this song is so precious to her. The ability for a stranger, or in this cases a band of strangers, to perfectly illustrate such an emotionally confusing experience for her created a sense of community that maybe Moira isn’t the only one struggling to fall out of love with someone.

Grant

"You Are My Sunshine" by Johnny Cash
Before listening to "You Are My Sunshine"
Before listening to "You Are My Sunshine"

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During "You Are My Sunshine"
During "You Are My Sunshine"

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After listening to "You Are My Sunshine"
After listening to "You Are My Sunshine"

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Before listening to "You Are My Sunshine"
Before listening to "You Are My Sunshine"

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What does this song mean to you?

"My mom used to always sing this song to me in the mornings and before bed, so it makes me think of her."

Why is this song your go-to over other sad music?

 

"This song sticks out to me over others because it holds a special place in my heart in reference to my mom. It was something she always sang for me, so it stands out even more so now that I’m older."

Does this song intensify your sadness or give you a form of comfort?

"Um, I think both. It brings me back to an earlier time of my life in both good and bad ways. Reminds me of when she was here, but also reminds me that she’s gone."

When I was deciding who I wanted to interview for my blog, Grant was the first person to pop in my mind. Not only is he my boyfriend that I know a lot about, but he is also someone that isn’t really the type to turn to music when he is sad. I wanted to experience his favorite sad song and watch him interact with the music to show that sad music can play a wide range of roles and doesn’t affect everyone in the same way. I found it so interesting that when listening to “You Are My Sunshine” by Johnny Cash, a song his late mother used to sing to him all the time, I probably had a more emotional knee-jerk reaction to it than he did. Not to say that the song doesn’t have immense meaning to him, bringing him back to mornings with his mom. Rather, his reaction goes to show that sad music is a dynamic being that creates uniquely personal relationships with everyone.

As I reached the end of this blog, I realized that I investigated and explored dynamic between people and sad music yet worked so hard to stray away from my own personal relationship with sad music. How can I call myself The Sad Song Enthusiast yet be so reclusive about my own journey with my favorite sad song? The whole point of this blog is to celebrate the music that I have grown to love so much, so it didn’t feel complete without my piece of the puzzle. ​

 

Rather than blabber on, I’ll let the video speak for itself. I hope you enjoy my impressively emo take on the infamous carpool karaoke.

Carpool Karaoke with The Sad Song Enthusiast