My girlfriend tends to listen to music that express how she feels at a given moment. For example, if she's feeling frustrated then the lyrics of the songs she listens will be of frustration.

Does this external agent (music) expressing her feelings actually help her deal with negative emotions (depression, frustration, anger, sadness, etc.) or does it cause more harm than good?

Are there better or worse kinds of music for helping with negative emotions?

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    It is sometimes claimed when you're upset or frustrated, that you should let it all out. Scream or punch a punching bag or something like that. Release your anger in a non-destructive manner. The evidence, however, shows that this is likely to cause the people to a) spend more time thinking about what made them upset and b) be more inclined to think that releasing anger is a useful response to provocation. So in that case the advice is actually detrimental. Jan 12, 2012 at 9:54
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    I wouldn't be surprised if the same objection can be raised in regards to your question. I don't have the data (hence the comment), but I find it plausible that listening to such music would tend to make her dwell on the issue for a longer time, and to some extent fuel her opinion which may be detrimental in itself (for instance, listening to depressive music when you're depressed) Jan 12, 2012 at 9:56
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    We want to focus our attention on doubtful claims that are widely held or are made by notable people. Please provide some references to places where this claim is being made.
    – Oddthinking
    Jan 21, 2012 at 1:35
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    @Oddthinking I would consider that claim widely held. I've encountered many, many people throughout life who claim it personally. Have you really not heard people claim that enough that you would not consider it widely held? Jan 21, 2012 at 8:30
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    @Oddthinking I find it very odd that you have never heard someone claim that listening to sad songs helps them to better deal with their feeling sad. Especially since you have heard the claim that if people are sad they will listen to sad songs. Note, the claim is not that listening to sad songs while sad can make you happy(that is never claimed in the question) just that it can aid with feeling sad. Jan 21, 2012 at 15:15

3 Answers 3


Violent or anti-social music lyrics may provide a short-term catharsis for depression and feelings of alienation, by giving the listener the company that mysery is said to crave.

In larger doses, however, the negative emotions expressed in those songs are apt to work at ingraining the attitudes they portray in their lyrics into the minds of their listeners, thus reinforcing the feelings of depression and sometimes by validating thoughts of violence or suicide. (Shneidman and Farberow, 1994)

Sometimes, when addiction to heavy metal or rap music becomes extreme, a "media delinquency" can develop, when the music becomes an actual contributory factor in a person's thoughts, decision-making and behavior. (Pezdek & Roe, 1995)

Finally, Goleman states (1995):

To immerse oneself in angry, desperate, depressing music is a poor strategy for coping with anger, despair, and depression. Neuroscience suggests that 'brooding,' or dwelling on one’s current emotional state, is more likely to deepen the state rather than to alleviate it.

On a brief personal note, I can tell you from first-hand experience how a person's choice of music can backfire on them. My husband (now ex-) has always listened to heavy metal head-banger stuff since I've known him. When we were 20, it was not such a big deal, I guess. But as the years passed, it was like the pissed off teen rebel "I hate my parents and I'll do what I want" theme somehow stunted his emotional growth. I have long believed that the 4 to upward of 10 hours each day he has spent listening to angry, depressing anti-social lyrics as though they were a personal anthem has seriously affected his brain and the way he thinks and views himself and the rest of the world. "Hate Rock," I always called it.

So to answer the question: Yes, listening to sad music while a person is feeling sad themselves can be cathartic and is a matter of personal choice of whether to deal with their feelings that way. BUT, beware the negative effects of over-indulgence, especially in those prone to addictive behavior. (Pezdek & Roe, 1995)

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    +1 for the references and links, not so much the personal anecdote.
    – SpellingD
    Nov 6, 2013 at 16:23

Music can make you feel better. There are some trials showing this, I would highlight two of then:

Pleasurable emotional response to music: a case of neurodegenerative generalized auditory agnosia.

Music therapy for acquired brain injury.

  • As far as I can see, some kinds of music do seem to have a positive effect on people with brain injury, but has there been a study regarding people without them? Also, in general music can be pleasurable and make you feel good, I know that much, but do depressing lyrics actually help deal with negative emotions? That has not been addressed, and neither whether there are better kinds of music for dealing with this.
    – Kenji Kina
    Jan 20, 2012 at 23:12
  • Now I understood what you are asking... I don't know the answer either.
    – desgua
    Jan 21, 2012 at 0:39

It is perhaps a type of sublimation. To quote from the book Music therapy in the treatment of adults with mental disorders

according to Noy (1967) uses of music within psychoanalytic therapy included (1)music as a means of sublimation for channeling instinctual drives in a socially acceptable manner

Wikipedia says:

sublimation is a mature type of defence mechanism where socially unacceptable impulses or idealizations are consciously transformed into socially acceptable actions or behaviour, possibly converting the initial impulse in the long term.

There seems to be evidence that music can influence the emotion of the listener. For example this study found that emotion induced in the listener was the same as the emotion expressed in the music.

Lastly, to quote from the The Philosophy of Music from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Shifting focus from benefits located in the expressive work to those located in the emotional listener, the oldest suggestion is Aristotle's theory of catharsis, according which our negative emotional response to negatively expressive art results in a (positive) psychological purgation of the negative emotions (Aristotle 1987, 36-9 (ch. 6)). A less therapeutic approach is the suggestion that, since these emotions are without ‘life implications’ (that is, as discussed above, we are not sad about anything), we are able to take advantage of our responses to savor these emotions, gain an understanding of them, and be reassured that we have the capacity to feel them (Levinson 1982).

I couldn't find any studies examining specifically if listening to depressing music while depressed can be beneficial.There is an abundance of literature showing however that music in general can be beneficial for helping people with depression. It would then not surprise me if some people such as your girlfriend do find it beneficial, perhaps as a form of catharsis as proposed by Aristotle.

  • @Downvoters why the downvote? Feb 20, 2012 at 6:04
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    And why the deletion of the comments?
    – Kenji Kina
    Feb 20, 2012 at 11:53
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    @SonnyOrdell I think the downvotes are due to the fact that it doesn't answer the question. If music can induce it's emotion into the listener than maybe given a depressive person depressive music will make them more depressed. It could also help them to process those negative emotions. We don't really know. The answer doesn't help us to decide whether the girlfriend of the person who made the question should listen to that music.
    – Christian
    Jul 13, 2012 at 16:39

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