Functions of sad music in daily life: An explorative study on the influence of exposure, coping strategies and personality

Karim Weth, Richard Parncutt


People often deliberately listen to music that they consider sad, particularly during negative life events, when sad music can serve a range of self-regulatory functions (Van den Tol & Edwards, 2013). In general, traits such as coping strategies and self-efficacy determine how people react to difficult situations, yet it is unclear how sad music relates to these factors. However, sad music is also used for other reasons, e.g. to simply produce hedonic or aesthetic pleasure (Garrido & Schubert, 2011). The present study aimed to investigate the everyday functions and uses of sad music for a large number of participants, and the ambivalent emotions that they experience in response (Weth & Kickinger, 2013). In an exploratory online study (n=582), participants were asked when and why they listen to sad music, and how it makes them feel. Individual coping strategies (Brief-COPE) and personality traits (empathy and self-efficacy) were measured. We also considered relationships between frequency of exposure to sad music and the corresponding functions and emotional outcomes, since exposure to music can change attitudes towards it (Szpunar et al., 2004). Results revealed a three-factor-structure regarding motives which were labeled as 1) self-regulatory, 2) cursory, and 3) social motives. A two-factor structure emerged in terms of emotional outcomes and these were labeled as 1) light and 2) complex affect, respectively. The three functions showed specific relationships to individual personality traits and coping strategies, e.g. that people with low self- efficacy and high empathy more frequently use sad music for self-regulation. Furthermore, frequent exposure to sad music seems to enable listeners to more often use sad music for cursory functions and respond with more positive and less negative affect.

Keywords: sad music, emotions, coping strategies, personality


Garrido, S., & Schubert, E. (2011). Negative emotion in music: What is the attraction? A qualitative study. Empirical Musicology Review, v6 n4 (Oct. 2011), 214-230.

Szpunar, K. K., Schellenberg, E. G., & Pliner, P. (2004). Liking and Memory for Musical Stimuli as a Function of Exposure. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 30(2), 370–381.

Van den Tol, A. J. M., & Edwards, J. (2013). Exploring a rationale for choosing to listen to sad music when feeling sad. Psychology of Music, 41(4), 440–465.

Weth, K. & Kickinger, M. (2013). Ambivalent Emotions in Music : We Like Sad Music When It Makes Us Happy. In: Proceedings of the 3rd International Conference on Music & Emotion (ICME3), Jyväskylä, Finland, 11th - 15th June 2013. Geoff Luck & Olivier Brabant (Eds.). University of Jyväskylä, Department of Music.

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