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  1. #1
    Symbolic Herald Vasilisa's Avatar
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    Feb 2010

    Post Are sad songs better?

    Are sad songs better?
    The charts suggest we are programmed to prefer melancholy music. But is this really the case?
    Greg Kot
    25 March 2014
    BBC Culture |

    Pharrell Williams’ Happy is shaping up as the year’s mega hit: it has already risen to number one in 23 countries. But it’s also something of a rarity – a critically acclaimed song that is light, catchy and seemingly without ‘deep’ meaning.

    Consider that of the nine best-selling songs of all time, most brim with melancholy, if not sadness and despair. Bing Crosby’s White Christmas, Elton John’s Candle in the Wind, Whitney Houston’s I Will Always Love You, Celine Dion’s My Heart Will Go On,– to paraphrase Elton, sad songs not only say so much, they sell really, really well. But do listeners really prefer melancholy music, and if so why? Is Williams’ hit destined to lose its lustre when, years from now, we look back on the songs that mattered most in 2014?

    The charts suggest we love tunes that rip our hearts out. The last blockbuster song that found success across genre, gender and generation the way Happy has was Adele’s 2010 tearjerker Rolling in the Deep. Williams’ song doesn’t aspire to that sort of gravitas. Its lyrics verge on throwaway simplicity; it’s built on a command to “clap along if you feel like a room without a roof.”

    The lingering impression left by songs that put a smile on our faces is that they lack longevity. The past hit most immediately suggestive of Williams’ smash − Bobby McFerrin’s Don’t Worry Be Happy − might have sounded good in 1988, when it went to number one in the US and won three Grammy Awards, but it hasn’t aged well because it feels dated and contrived. Will Pharrell’s song suffer the same fate?

    Pleasure pain principle

    A study published last year in Frontiers of Psychology suggests it might. The researchers found that that sad music has a counterintuitive appeal – it actually makes people feel better. Sad songs allow listeners to experience indirectly the emotions expressed in the lyrics and implied by the (usually) minor-key melodies. The sadness may not directly reflect the listener’s own experiences, but it triggers chemicals in our brain that can produce a cathartic response: tears, chills, an elevated heartbeat. This is not an unpleasant feeling, and may explain why listeners are inclined to buy sad songs and why artists want to write or sing them.

    While touring last year, Emmylou Harris would introduce her version of Felice and Boudleaux Bryant’s heart-breaking Love Hurts by saying that it began “my love affair with really dark depressing sad songs that have no hope.” Richard Thompson has described his penchant for writing downbeat songs by saying it’s actually pleasurable: “It's fun to sing sad songs. And it's fun to listen to sad songs. Enjoyable. Satisfying.”

    Kelly Hogan titled her 2012 album I Like to Keep Myself in Pain. On the title track, Robyn Hitchcock’s lyrics assert that suffering is actually a heightened form of consciousness. Hogan explained: “Sometimes it’s just a great feeling to wallow in that because you do feel more alive.” How else to explain the decades-long popularity of blues, gospel and country, genres built on songs about hardship and heartbreak.

    More than a feeling

    But is it really sadness that listeners are connecting with or something more complicated? A recent study at McGill University found that emotionally intense music – whether sad or happy - stimulates the pleasure centre in the brain, in the same way that food, sex and drugs do. The study found that listeners respond most forcefully to emotional complexity, a depth of feeling enhanced by clever arrangements that kept throwing out surprises, and the back-and-forth between tension and release.

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  2. #2
    Wake, See, Sing, Dance Cellmold's Avatar
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    Mar 2012


    That's interesting, personally I think it reflects an opinion of many that optimism is usually a desperate attempt to lighten an overwhelming load which is in favour of the negative.

    Although it could be also said that we just want something to represent different degrees of up or down. Without relying on one alone.
    'One of (Lucas) Cranach's masterpieces, discussed by (Joseph) Koerner, is in it's self-referentiality the perfect expression of left-hemisphere emptiness and a precursor of post-modernism. There is no longer anything to point to beyond, nothing Other, so it points pointlessly to itself.' - Iain McGilChrist

    Suppose a tree fell down, Pooh, when we were underneath it?"
    "Suppose it didn't," said Pooh, after careful thought.
    Piglet was comforted by this.
    - A.A. Milne.

  3. #3
    Post Human Post Qlip's Avatar
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    Jul 2010
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    Oh, Happy is a cute song, but even if the article claims that it's 'critically acclaimed', it's well produced bubble gum music. I feel like this article takes a very simplistic view of music, probably because it's viewing a 'successful' song by chart appeal, and happiness and sadness by lyrics alone, which I can't really get behind. Music is more complex than that.

    Like for instance the melody for 'Happy' is in a minor key which doesn't convey and is not associated with a 'happy tune', and Pharrell's voice is snappy, but it has a kind of a pleading quality to it. It's that hint of sadness that amps up the song.

  4. #4
    MyPeeSmellsLikeCoffee247 five sounds's Avatar
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    Jul 2013
    729 sx/sp
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    emotional depth is important, whether happiness or sadness (or any other emotion). it's when a song seems shallow that i'm less attracted to it. unfortunately a lot of 'happy' songs are a little too "my life's great! i have good friends! my lover loves me!" while sad songs seem to dive a little deeper into that emotion.

    as a person who uses music kind of like a drug, i need a variety. i also need it to be 'real' in order to benefit from it. 'real' = depth often times (or rawness). and i find a lot of my favorite music is sad. even more of it is a little bit of both. emotionally complex.

    but then i think of popular country. plenty of sad themes. can't get into it. maybe those are examples of less deep or raw sad songs, from my pov at least. different things resonate with different people.
    You hem me in -- behind and before;
    you have laid your hand upon me.
    Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
    too lofty for me to attain.

  5. #5
    LL P. Stewie Beorn's Avatar
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    Dec 2008


    Sad songs are great.
    Especially when they're dubbed over stock video of Mitch McConnell.

    It just wouldn't be as good with happy.

  6. #6


    Any emotion is good, as long as its not affected. But generally I don't like music that's angry, or hateful. I do like sad themes, though, I can relate to that. I also like uplifting themes, and songs about love.

    Anything real.

  7. #7


    I live under a rock and hadn't heard Happy before this article mentioned it ... but damn, it's catchy. So thanks for that.

    I sometimes go on depressing music binges and they get me down and fuck with my dreams and I still can't stop until I snap out of my funk. I don't find sad music cathartic, to say the truth. More often, it makes me feel emotions that I don't naturally have but because they're beautiful and artistic in their melancholy, I tend to dwell on them ... but it's a bummer feeling down all the time.

  8. #8
    Unapologetic being Evo's Avatar
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    Jul 2011
    1w9 sp/sx
    ESI Fi


    I like both happy and sad songs equally.

    I might lean toward sad more tho if I had to pick.
    "Once the game is over, the Pawn and the King go back into the same box"

    Freedom isn't free.
    "Freedom is the right to tell people what they do not want to hear." ~ Orwell
    I'm that person that embodies pretty much everything that you hate. Might as well get used to it.
    Unapologetically bonding in an uninhibited, propelled manner

  9. #9
    Senior Member Nicodemus's Avatar
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    Aug 2010


    Gottfried von Strassburg already knew:

    der inneclîche minnen muot
    sô der in sîner senegluot
    ie mêre und mêre brinnet,
    sô er ie sêrer minnet.
    diz leit ist liebes alse vol,
    daz übel daz tuot sô herzewol,
    daz es kein edele herze enbirt,
    sît ez hie von geherzet wirt.

  10. #10
    hypersane Hive's Avatar
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    Nov 2010


    I was about to say no, but when I listened to the songs I was gonna provide as counterexamples, I realized there's definetely some elements of sadness in there:

    Those were the first two songs that came to mind when I thought of uplifting music. I think they both have a very distinct bittersweet quality, reflected in both the music and the lyrics.

    But... Thinking about it even more I realized I'm just as affected by the most jubilant, joyous shit:

    So I guess I'll concede that it's the emotional intensity/personal resonance of the song that makes it hit home. Writing a sad song seems to be a shortcut, though. The overwhelming majority of the music in my library (I'll bet about 80% or more out of a total 1183 albums) is written in a minor key, which has to be telling of something.

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