Do We Choose Sad Music When We’re Sad?

According to a new study by researchers from the University of Toronto, people prefer to listen to sad music when they are sad. “In fact, music is particularly effective at inducing positive or negative moods in the laboratory, and musically induced moods have notable effects on cognitive abilities,” said lead author Patrick G. Hunter. In their study, Hunter and his colleagues theorized that mood would predict music preference, and that listeners would choose music to match their positive or negative mood state. “We had two predictions of mood congruency, or that ‘misery loves company.’ One was that the typical bias for happy-sounding music would disappear when listeners were in a sad mood (Experiment 1). The other was that the perception of sadness in emotionally ambiguous music (neither happy- nor sad-sounding) would be elevated for sad listeners (Experiment 2).”

The team recruited 48 college students and had them view pictures designed to elicit sad or happy moods. After seeing each picture, they described the picture they saw and reported their mood state. After viewing the happy pictures, the participants experienced increased happiness, even when they subsequently viewed the sad pictures. Next, the participants listened to upbeat and somber music. “Although happy music was preferred to sad music after a happy or neutral mood induction, this preference disappeared after a sad mood induction,” said the team. “Sad moods also increased the perception of sadness in music when the music was not clearly happy- or sad-sounding. In short, the results provided support for both of our ‘misery-loves-company’ hypotheses.” The researchers found that music preference was directly linked to mood, and in particular, happy mood. “Perhaps listeners in an initially happy or neutral mood found sad-sounding music to be unpleasant because it elicited sad thoughts.” They added, “By contrast, listeners in a sad mood would already be thinking sad thoughts, so the effect of the music on their cognitions would be moot.”

Hunter, P. G., Schellenberg, E. G., & Griffith, A. T. (2011, May 30). Misery Loves Company: Mood-Congruent Emotional Responding to Music. Emotion. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0023749

© Copyright 2011 by By Noah Rubinstein, LMFT, LMHC, therapist in Olympia, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Shamini


    September 28th, 2011 at 12:52 PM

    Oh I am SOOO the opposite. Why have my mood sunk any lower by listening to mopey sad music? I much prefer to try to get myself through and hopefully out of a slump by listening to some really peppy upbeat music. This really only makes sense to me, but then again I tend to be a glass half full rather than empty kind of gal so maybe it is that outlook that helps me to stay a little more able to get through the moods faster.

  • Laura


    September 28th, 2011 at 6:26 PM

    I listen to sad music when I’m sad,
    It seems to help facilitate the process
    needed to come to accept what I can’t change
    or help give me the strength to change what I can.
    I think It is important to embrace our emotions to move past them.
    That is probably why sad songs are so popular, we need them.

  • Mildred simpson

    Mildred simpson

    September 28th, 2011 at 6:44 PM

    Shamini and I would have been the outliers in this experiment. Sad music, I find is a bad thing to listen to anytime because it can really pulverize your mood. When I am sad I take extra precautions when choosing songs as to avoid playing a depressing one. I don’t want to feed my bad mood with songs that are practically the high protein foods of depressing thought. I say this because the songs cause your depressing thoughts to become more frequent, larger and scarier.

    Uplifting music is where it is at. If you’re feeling down or just a little off just jam to some uplifting stuff and I assure you that you’ll be better in no time.

  • Abel


    September 29th, 2011 at 4:42 AM

    We carry our feelings and moods with us.And it is only imperative that we would prefer to be in a setting that corresponds to our feelings.So while a sad person may not want to go to a fun-filled place(at that moment at least),someone who is excited,happy and upbeat would not want to be stuck in a sad situation either.

    Sounds play a very important role in our lives. We can close our eyes and not see them but it’s hard to escape sounds.And a sad mood would demand similar music I would say.

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