It’s not because they want to maintain their low mood, as some have claimed, but rather because they find it calming, or even uplifting.

Image via DoD.

We all know just how much of an impact music can have on our mood. We put a jumpy playlist to go with our workout, a soothing song when we have a cup of tea, and sadder tunes when we’re feeling down. We also use music to purge ourselves of negative emotions — Thank you next, anyone? The ancient Greeks had a word for this: catharsis. Catharsis is the process of releasing, and thereby providing relief from, strong or repressed emotions. Something similar might be happening when depressed people listen to sad music: counterintuitively, it might give them relief from feelings of sadness and help them purge some of their negative emotions.

A few years ago, a provocative study found that people suffering from depression are much more likely to listen to sad music — which was interpreted by some as a way of seeking to maintain negative feelings. However, a new study challenges that idea, suggesting that depressed people are not seeking to perpetuate negativity, but rather feel better after listening to sad music.

The study had 38 female undergrads diagnosed with depression and 38 non-depressed female undergrad controls listen to music. The first part was consistent with previous findings — depressed people being more likely to opt for sad music. But unlike previous works, researchers also asked the volunteers why they made the choices they did. The majority of people with depression said that the music makes them feel more calm and relaxed. Lastly, researchers asked participants to listen to their choice of songs a second time, and asked participants how it made them feel. Critically, when they listened to the songs a second time, participants reported feeling more happiness and less sadness.

“In the replication music task, major depressive disorder (MDD) people were more likely to choose sad music,” researchers write. “However, inconsistent with any motivation to upregulate sadness, people with MDD reported that they chose sad music because it was low in energy levels (e.g., relaxing). The strong appeal of sad music to people with MDD may be related to its calming effects rather than any desire to increase or maintain sad feelings.”

The study was unable to explain why exactly people find sad music more relaxing and why it makes them happier. Intuitively, it makes sense to listen to something that’s in tune with your feelings — kind of like having a comforting friend that empathizes with you — but the exact mechanism remains unknown for now. At any rate, the idea that depressed people are trying to maintain negative feelings just took a serious blow.

The study “Why do depressed people prefer sad music?” has been published in APA Psych.