Sad songs really do (say so much)

Is music getting sadder? Art: Ruby Treloar.
Lyrics from the song ‘Fucking Young’, album ‘Cherry Bomb’ (2015) Source: Nell Van.

‘Your brother is drawing suicidal images,’ my mother’s voice broke. I sat in a dentist waiting room as she sobbed on the phone, describing the sketches she had found in my 18-year-old-brothers room. Frantic and concerned, I asked her to send me a photo. Immediately, my eye was drawn to the top right of his sketch. I noticed the facile drawn stick figure, hanging by a tree. As negative thoughts surged rampant in my brain, something occurred to me. I recognised the drawing was some kind of acknowledgement to one of his favourite music artists, Tyler, the Creator. The more I studied his sketches, the more my prediction it made sense, or perhaps the more I wanted it to make sense. Though depicting the act of suicide, I comforted my mum and told her to relax. “He’s simply illustrating lyrics from a song,” I insisted, trying to convince both her and myself not to worry. 

The original drawing done by my brother. Source: Toby Van.

Despite the fact I realised the drawings may not have been as sinister as initially thought, I still questioned one thing: 

Is my brother really sad, or is the music he is listening to sad?

Sadder? What do people think? Video: Nell Van.

An informal survey found that 82% of those interviewed, agreed music is getting sadder.

According to the Journal of Popular Music Studies, music is getting sadder. A 2018 US based study, conducted by Kathleen Napier and Lior Shamir, analysed song lyrics and sentiments from the Billboard Hot 100s. More than 6,000 popular songs were investigated using quantitative analysis to measure changes from over the past 65 years. Results found a significant increase in sadness, fear, anger and disgust while, joy, confidence, and openness had all declined. But how does this affect society, does an increase in sad music influence one’s feelings of sadness?

So what if music is getting sadder? Video: Nell Van.

Associate Professor of computer science at Kansas State University and co-author of the study, Lior Shamir, says it is difficult to measure sadness scientifically.

“What we can learn from the study is that society, or at least, music consumers have become more open to sadness and fear expressed in lyrics of popular music songs.”

Shamir says this is due to the change in the role of music in society. In the 1950’s and early 1960’s music served the purpose of fun and entertainment. But in the late 1960’s, music started to serve other purposes, such as social and political activism which in turn changed the tones expressed in music. “I am not sure society indeed became sadder, but society has become more open and more willing to contain sadness, anger, and fear.”

“I believe that the prevalence of social media, which allows people to express themselves in public in tones that were not common before social media became so prevalent, also add to the increasing popularity of sad and angry lyrics.” 

Breakfast producer and presenter at radio station RTRFM in Perth, Taylah Strano, says while she has seen an increase in more vulnerability in music, she is unable to determine whether that translates to music being sadder.

“People being more vulnerable and upfront can sometimes be translated into sadness.”

Strano says individuals may be becoming more aware of sad music because of their own personal experiences. She says the current state of the world, specifically current affairs and politics have allowed people to be more confronted with their own issues of sadness, as well as other more personal things that may affect their lives. 

“I don’t think people are getting sadder, I think people are becoming more open to the idea of sharing their experience or their sadness with other people.”

Registered music therapist from South Victoria, Liana Perillo,says her education taught her to look at music from a subjective point of view, and she therefore disagrees that music is becoming sadder. “If we listen to one piece of music and present it to two different people, … their individual experiences and their perception of what’s going on for them at that particular point in time will determine what emotions are evoked.”

“I’m really reluctant to label songs as evoking any particular emotion because it really depends, It’s very personalised as to how one responds to any given piece of music.”

Perillo agrees lyricists may be more explicit these days and are more true to how they’re feeling. She still remains confident this does not translate to music progressively becoming sadder. Like Strano, she believes young artists have the potential and ability to use music as a form of emotional expression and release. “It is a strength that these artists are able to convey such authenticity and deliver such emotions through songs while discussing topics in society that aren’t as talked about or as openly expressed”. She notes that the way artists express themselves is, and always has been relative to what was going on socially around them. 

Musician and medical student at the University of Western Australia, Brandon Wheeler, says music platforms such as Spotify and Sound Cloud are allowing people to access a wider range of music other than radio-driven popular music. The new era of music has allowed people to be more open and expressive. As people become more willing to discuss their personal struggles with issues such as mental health, musical artists become more comfortable sharing their own stories and that offers a sense of comfort and liberation to listeners.

Brandon Wheeler says making and writing music is an outlet for him to release and reflect on his personal experiences. 

“When I’m feeling sad, one of the first things I think of is how I have to write it down. That’s when I make my best music, the only music. I can’t really make music when I’m happy because I have nothing to talk about. And there’s also no motivation. If I’m not venting or expressing myself, there’s nothing I really desperately need to get out.”

Video: Nell Van. Music by Brandon and Julian Wheeler.

Although music can be a helpful tool for emotional release, Liana Perillo suggests there are healthy and unhealthy uses of music. She says this is particularly prevalent in adolescents, with people between the ages of 12 and 25 being the age group to consume music more than any other age group. 

“It is not uncommon for people of this age to use music as a lifeline when experiencing mental health issues.” She says during these times, it is important that they’re not using the music to reflect.

“If a person is ruminating on a negative experience, such as a breakup, that can actually create a cycle of negative thought patterns. As therapists we look at that and we educate them on how they can perhaps change their music cues or create a playlist that supports a more positive mood state.”

Contrary, there are healthy uses. Listeners can use music to increase motivation or to link them with states of feeling uplifted. 

“People have a lot of access to music so it’s about empowering them to use it in the healthiest ways for them, their mental state and their wellbeing”. 

Perillosays there are still lots of myths and perceptions that still exist about music, suggesting it has a link negative behaviours or emotions for people. 

“There’s absolutely no evidence to suggest that there’s a link and I believe again going back to subjectiveness of music, what one person sees as negative might be actually really supportive for someone else’s mental state.”

Perillo uses Marilyn Manson and heavy metal as an example. She says while this particular music may trigger rumination and negative thoughts for some, it is definitely never causal or creates behaviours, despite the fact it may be triggering. She describes how listening to certain music can assist listeners if they are holding onto certain emotions of anger that are suppressed. 

“It can actually be an incredible release for that individual to hear this music that actually speaks to a part of them that has been unexpressed.”

So how does an increase in sad music affect our mood? According to Perillo, music is a powerful tool and there is neuroscience to support how it is processed on an emotional level through our amygdala in our lower brain.

“Music can match mood. If you play a piece of music to someone that is feeling depressed or feeling anxious it can you can support how they’re feeling by actually giving a voice to how they’re feeling. They might not be able to articulate it with words but they might be able to feel a sense of the music hearing them or empathising with them and therefore it could be powerful to actually process their mood state or that emotion,” she says. 

Tayla Strano says you either listen to music because of your mood or the music you’re listening to will put you in a certain mood.

“Music does affect your mood, your state and being [and] perhaps that’s allowing people to become more vulnerable and to open up. So it’s not necessarily a bad thing if music is becoming sadder. How we interpret it and how we take it in and what we do with it is what the defining factor is.” 

Liana Perillosays music is powerful in affecting our mood state because it hits us at a subconscious level. Whether it’s the lyrics or the music itself, it almost has a somatic effect where its being felt by our bodies and being processed in the brain. “So in terms of on which level, I’d say a deep level. Because music listening or engaging in music requires more brain processes or more processes in the body than any other activities.”

Perth musician and classic composition student at the Western Australia Academy of Performing Arts, Julian Wheeler, says while music may not directly change your mood, he believes that people can tie specific memories to music and that can change your mood.

“If you are listening to a song that is very nostalgic to you, it can definitely impact your mood. If you are listening to a song that you and an ex-partner used to listen to, it will most likely bring up old emotions and memories and change your mood.”

Despite the way music trends have been going over the past few decades, he says music is not always going to be sad.

“Music trends move in patterns, it will always eventually roll over to the next big thing.” 

Please enjoy a collection of ‘sad songs’, selected by those interviewed. Source: Nell Van.