Empowering People through Behavioral Science
Practical Tools for Purpose Purpose & Well-Being Purpose Across the Lifespan

Can You Mend a Broken Heart with A Sad Love Song?

By Haotian Zhou


Contrary to what Forest Gump would like us to believe, life is not like a box of chocolate. No, life is like a snake pit and you never know whether you are going to get bitten by a black mamba or a rattlesnake. But either way, you are bitten all the time and it all bleeping hurts. To survive life, you just have to figure out a means or two to cope with the agony and angst life throws at you all the time. Psychologists call our attempt at improving our emotional state emotion regulation. Aside from binge-eating and shopping, music listening is often employed to deal with unpleasantness of life. The idea that music can be leveraged to regulate one’s emotional states isn’t all that mind-blowing given that music is capable of evoking a smorgasbord of emotional responses from the listeners, e.g. awe, joy, sadness, etc. The million-dollar question here is just how effective music listening is as an emotional regulation method because poor emotion regulation can often result in some pretty serious mental diseases such as depression and anxiety disorder.

It turns out that, just like me, tons of people choose to listen to music that matches their negative states, hoping to feel better afterwards. However, a research team led by Emily Carlson from University of Jyväskylä in Finland argued that people who listen to sad music in the hope of bouncing back from the abyss of misery are in for an epic disappointment. Instead of alleviating your torment, the researchers hypothesized that you are only going to sink deeper into your misery after you cut yourself off socially and commiserate with the forlorn protagonist in your favorite sad love song. To test this hypothesis, the researchers contacted over a hundred volunteers, asking them about the kind of music they listen to when coping with unpleasant emotional states as well as assessing their mental health in terms of anxiety and neuroticism, high levels of which pretty much ensure you a date with the dreaded Nurse Ratched. What they found was pretty astounding: anxiety and neuroticism were higher in participants who tend to listen to sad music to improve negative states.

Image ©:  Mateus Lucena 2013

To further understand why sad music fails to deliver what people expect it to do, the researchers sent over 60 participants into a marvel of modern technology called functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). fMRI is a machine that looks eerily like a cremation oven but allows scientists to directly observe brain’s activities in real time. While the participants lied still in the bore of fMRI, the researchers played sad music to them through headphones. The researchers noted that the activity in a brain area called mPFC was completely shut down by the sad music. mPFC is a rather critical brain area that undergirds any successful attempt at emotion regulation. By paralyzing mPFC, sad music essentially squashes any hope of the person recovering from the negative state.

The problem with sad music is that when you get too absorbed you are not really gaining any new perspectives on your quagmire. Instead, you just keep reliving the trauma that cut your heart open ad infinitum. Basically, it is like trying to stop the bleeding by stabbing the wound once again, only with more ferocity. Of course, as with any research, you need to take the conclusion with a grain of salt. For starter, the participants did not get to listen to any of those tear-jerkers from the 80’s hair metal bands while lying in the fMRI. Instead, they listened to a series of 4-second snippets of some soundtrack. So it seems that you cannot mend a broken heart with a sad love song but you might also want to wait for some more definitive evidence before deleting "Killing Me Softly" with "This Song" from your Spotify list once and for all.


Haotian Zhou is a Research Professional (post-doctoral fellow) in the NPP Network, based at the Center for Decision Research at Chicago Booth.

Associated Project Theme: Practical Tools for Purpose Purpose & Well-Being Purpose Across the Lifespan

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