Why We Love Listening To Sad Music On Repeat

Can't stop listening to Taylor Swift right now? (Same.) Here's what's happening in your mind and body when you press play.

Did “All Too Well (Taylor’s Version)” maim you, too?

I’ve listened to the 10-minute version countless times since its release on Friday. Just when I think I’m done and ready to switch to a happier track, something reels me back. It doesn’t even matter that I’m not going through devastating heartbreak (bless my patient fiancé). I can’t help but get lost in the poetic lyrics and listen to it again. And again. And then again one more time.

Sound familiar? Many of us have been guilty of blasting a song a million times. But we’re not masochists ― at least according to science. Music has a notoriously powerful influence on our emotions.

Here are a few research-backed reasons why we keep pressing play.

Sad music makes us feel calm.

There’s a reason we always turn to sappy ballads when we’re feeling low. A 2014 study published in the journal PLOS One found that listening to blue tunes actually creates positive feelings ― like peacefulness ― in the listener. The researchers discovered that those who listened to the sad music also experienced more empathy because they felt connected to the sadness of the music’s artist but experienced no “real life implications” of the sad event. This may also explain why we gravitate toward downer music after a breakup.

Melancholy music may release hormones in the brain that help us cope with sad situations.

Music is known to release the neurotransmitter dopamine in the brain, which provokes feelings of pleasure. This can occur whether the music is happy or sad. Some experts theorize that sad music also releases a hormone called prolactin, which is specifically tied to alleviating grief.

As Science Alert reported in 2016: “The body is essentially preparing itself to adapt to a traumatic event, and when that event doesn’t happen, the body is left with a pleasurable mix of opiates with nowhere else to go.”

It makes us cry ― and that can feel therapeutic.

Sometimes music goes as far as triggering a tear (or many tears, if you’re like me) when we listen to it. This overwhelming reaction is rooted in human behavior and at times can even be super cathartic. Research shows that a good cry boosts our mood. One study’s authors found that 90 minutes after participants cried, they reported feeling better than they did before they had a reason to cry.

Sad music can evoke more self-reflection.

Another study published in 2017 found that listening to sad music led to more mind wandering. Researchers looked at MRIs of people when they were listening to melancholy tunes vs. happy tunes. When the subjects listened to sad songs, they directed “their attention inwards, engaging in spontaneous thoughts, which are related to the self and emotional aspects of life,” according to the study’s authors.

Our brains develop an attachment to certain songs.

We connect to things when they feel personal ― and music is certainly no exception. In the case of Swift’s “Red (Taylor’s Version)” album, many fans grew up with the original and now feel a deeper bond with the re-recordings. Add this to some simple brain science and you have a powerful combination: Attachment and repetition.

“Musical repetition gets us mentally imagining or singing through the bit we expect to come next,” Elizabeth Margulis, author of the bookOn Repeat: How Music Plays the Mind,” told Mic in 2014. “A sense of shared subjectivity with the music can arise. In descriptions of their most intense experiences of music, people often talk about a sense that the boundary between the music and themselves has dissolved.”

In other words, we relate, we listen, then the cycle starts all over again. Our brains just can’t help it.

So, if you need me, I’ll be here with “All Too Well (10 Minute Version) (Taylor’s Version)” blasting through my headphones for the rest of the workday ― which equals about 48 plays. But who’s counting?

A previous version of this article originally appeared in October 2015.

There are a ton of science-backed reasons why you can't stop listening to Taylor Swift's saddest tunes.
Jeenah Moon via Reuters
There are a ton of science-backed reasons why you can't stop listening to Taylor Swift's saddest tunes.
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