The inseparable link between music and our mental states is a topic most people merely take for granted. We often listen to music that reflects our mood, or we’ll avoid music that contradicts how we’re feeling.
The power of music can’t be understated. Music listening habits can amplify pre-existing feelings and force the recollection of painful or joyful memories. Lyrically, artists (often unintentionally) prescribe solutions to our problems, or at least more generally present themselves as relatable. The cathartic nature of music, for musicians and music consumers, is practically universal.
This sentiment makes me wonder: What is the relationship between music and depression, and is there a danger to routinely morose listening habits? To dissect this question, I will approach it from a few different angles, including the findings of music researchers/psychologists and a brief analysis of pop music discourse on mental health.
The scientific research on this subject finds limited correlations between depression and sad music. The consensus is listening to sad music predicates an already sad state-of-being. In other words, it can be a symptom of depression, not a cause.
Interestingly, most articles I examined when researching this had a particular interest in the effects of emo music, and the emo subculture as a whole. Even emo listeners, with a stigmatized image of depressive angst and self-harm proclivities, were never found to be causally harmed by their music listening habits.
Most studies on the matter are more vague in their conclusions, with data suffering from small sizes of unvaried samples. Studies in this vein choose to use methodologies that capture reactions from short music clips, and they generally report that sad music is actually a calming experience.
Although this is promising, it doesn’t capture the full tale. Depression is a deeply intricate experience, and the discourse on mental illness loses most of its nuance when examined in limited scientific studies.
Generally, there seems to be more mainstream acknowledgement of depression, with intentions of sending positive reinforcement instead of tailoring negative messages. Musicians, in particular, are increasingly aware of their capacity to change the lives of their listeners.
The rapper Logic demonstrated this with the sympathetic and urgent pop-rap phenomenon “1-800-273-8255” featuring Alessia Cara and Khalid. He conscientiously displays mental health activism with a willingness to engage his audience in the context of a historically taboo issue.
While “1-800-273-8255” is certainly a sad song and evokes sad reactions, it ultimately encourages perseverance, and contributed to a 27% increase in calls to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline in the three weeks following the single’s release.
I’m less thrilled when artists turn to more harmful rhetoric in their lyrics. The late XXXTentacion topped the charts with a single aptly named “Sad!” in early 2018, reaching the No. 1 position on the Billboard Hot 100 following his untimely death.
However, I’ve always felt skeptical of the sentiment of “Sad!” and the actions that the chorus of the song incite.
The song details deeply low feelings of depression, creating a scenario where his significant other is the only source of joy in his life. His reaction to the potential of her leaving is a convincing “Suicide, if you ever try to let go.”
Given the context of XXXTentacion’s evident history of mental health issues and the violent sexual abuse of his girlfriend, I feel unsettled. This isn’t behavior to promote, considering how emotionally abusive that sort of declaration can be in a real situation. There have been few mainstream media critiques of the messaging of the song, and perhaps that’s in part due to his passing. Regardless, I don’t think “Sad!” constructively contributes to the broader media narrative of mental health.
Even if there isn’t concrete evidence that sad music directly and negatively impacts mental health, I believe irresponsible messaging can damage our understanding of it.
Personally, I’ve always felt that sad music can articulate emotions in ways that words cannot. Hearing heart-break in someone else is extraordinarily grounding during depressive mental states. Music is an invaluable mode of expression that enables our struggles to feel relatable.