Sad songs say so much: the enduring appeal of songs that hurt your heart

You don’t have to look far to find songs about sadness. Popular music of all genres has trafficked forever in lyrics that tell terrible tales, suggest dark motives and essentially insist that we all live in a vale of tears.

The nice thing is, there’s usually a catchy chorus and, if you listen to psychologists, this is all good for us. Earlier this year, an article in Psychology Today noted that sad songs let us understand shared difficult experiences of “rejection, loss, unrequited love, misfortune or other themes,” and which gives us a perspective on others’ problems. We might have had similar experiences, which give sad lyrics a new resonance, but regardless that empathetic understanding is what helps us grasp our common humanity and, down the road, perhaps overcome our own troubles.

Not that we’re thinking about this when listening to songs like Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” or Metallica’s “Unforgiven.” But music paired with thoughtful lyrics has a way of worming into our conscious in a way little else can: We play our favorite tunes over and over, and even talk sometimes about how some snippets become earworms we can’t eradicate so easily.

While I’m a fan of a good, sweet pop tune like Pharrell’s “Happy” – I think anyone who isn’t must be a little dead inside – I get much more long-term traction from a tune that takes a seriously dark turn. Maybe it’s the aural equivalent of picking at a scab – it’s questionably good for you, but the itch you reach by listening again and again is deeply, instinctually, satisfying.


And a good dark lyric can even overcome some of my lack of interest in the music or artist herself. Take Kelly Clarkson’s “Because of You.” She’s just about as mainstream as you can get, from her “American Idol” success to her chart-topping hits, Clarkson doesn’t seem like the sort of musician who would write a song about being abused – and being forever changed by that abuse. But in “Because of You,” we get:

Because of you
I find it hard to trust not only me, but everyone around me
Because of you
I am afraid

Damn, girl.

Dark lyrics are often best approached when we’re in our darkest, loneliest times – when we’re teenagers. We may have friends we can talk to, but when the right song sinks its teeth into your spine, it’s hard to ever lose the feeling entirely. I’ll always know exactly how I felt when The Smiths’ “Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me” hit home the first time:

Last night I dreamt
That somebody loved me
No hope – but no harm
Just another false alarm
Last night I felt
Real arms around me
No hope – no harm
Just another false alarm
So, tell me how long
Before the last one?
And tell me how long
Before the right one?
This story is old – I KNOW
But it goes on
This story is old – I KNOW
But it goes on

In that short space the band acknowledges that we’ve all had that dream – waking or asleep – in which we felt totally secure and loved, only to wake and find it was nothing but smoke. Then, at the end, the terrifically brilliant bit: the self-awareness that it’s an old story and maybe boring, but it never truly ends.

Noted Psychology Today, hearing those sad songs and thinking them through is like an exercise: We can imagine terrible real-life occurrences without having to literally experience them, and “such mental exercises can promote an attitude of problem solving and a safe venue for hypothetical testing of possible choices,” said the article.


This “music-evoked imagination,” at least in my case, sometimes went further than the artist may have intended. When I interviewed Juliana Hatfield about her 1993 single “My Sister,” she insisted it wasn’t actually about killing a wicked sibling. But I have my doubts; the song begins:

I hate my sister, she’s such a bitch.
She acts as if she doesn’t even know that I exist

She spends the rest of the song talking about how awesome her sister is … but then sister vanishes.

I miss my sister – why’d she go?

Because you took her out and wiped your memory of the incident! Or maybe that’s just my imagination going wild.

Whatever the reasoning, I’ve always been attracted to lyrics that twist and bend, or take us in different directions than just acknowledging how damn happy we are. Whether the surreal (Robyn Hitchcock’s “My Wife and My Dead Wife”) or epic (Gordon Lightfoot‘s “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald“) or surprisingly frightening (The Beatles’ “Run for Your Life”) or literary (The Beautiful South‘s “Woman in the Wall“), those tunes stir the darkness within year after year.

And, perhaps, make the real world a bit more understandable. As PT notes, “Music-evoked imagination can encourage us to reach beyond our troubles to help others. Compassion for others can comfort us and help us find our own healing.”

Or just a kick-ass playlist.

This article originally appeared at Curiosity Quills.