Some years ago, I went through a low period as a long-term relationship came to an end. I was living in a tiny apartment in Paris, a city where I knew only one other person. I was broke, of course. It was winter, and my music–the whole reason I’d moved to Paris–was going nowhere. I subsisted on espresso and Gauloises cigarettes, long walks around the freezing, empty city, and Radiohead’s Kid A and OK Computer. Cliché, I’m aware, but forgive me. I was young.
My point, however, is that rather than seeking out some positive, inspiring music that could have helped shake me out of my gloom, I gravitated toward the saddest sounds I could fill my head with. And I know I’m not alone in this behavior.
There’s something about sad songs that holds a strong appeal for us as listeners. The pining vocals, the grand weeping sweep of strings, the dark shadow of the minor key and shattered glass spill of acoustic piano, they scratch some itch deep inside that the bounce and whirl of a chipper ditty can’t reach.
Maybe hearing another person express through song the sadness we’re experiencing in life relieves some deep alienation? We’re assured we’re not alone in enduring pain and suffering. And vice versa, when we’re down, we maybe don’t want to hear Mr. Giggles joyously celebrating his good fortune? We don’t need someone else’s happiness rubbed in our teary faces right at that precise moment.
But we also often reach for those sad songs–those heartbreakers and haunted ballads–when all is well in life and we’re having a peachy day. In part because sad and downbeat music can create an instant mood, an atmosphere, a warm cocoon. It can offer us a place to retreat to. Upbeat and happy music generally serves to engage us with the world, dance through it, rejoice in what it has to offer.
It’s like happy music is that new outfit you might wear to a party and sad songs are your comfy old sweater and slippers. Parties are great, but for most of life, we’re just hanging out at home.
As a songwriter, the appeal of the sad song is irresistible. When you’re way down, there’s almost nothing that can heal you better than setting those woes to music. The conceit of “singing the blues” is so prevalent precisely because it’s effectively cathartic. But also, minor chords, sadness and loss offer the songwriter immediate access to depth and range of emotion. Simply put, it’s easier to be sad and profound than it is to be happy and profound. So if you’re trying to reach deep as a songwriter, the sad bag is usually the first place you’ll go.
Which of these thoughts do you think would be easier to infuse with depth and heartfelt emotion: “I’m so sad I could stare at these clouds all day and contemplate the transient nature of love and life,” or “I’m so happy I could skip”?
You see my point.
Don’t get me wrong. I love upbeat music like Abba and Katy Perry just as much as I covet the moody, melancholy sounds of Billie Holiday and Nick Drake. There’s just something about the warm, comfortable bath of those heart-rending sounds that I’ll always reach for in times of need.