I was 17 years old when my heart was broken for the first time. I remember making a playlist of sad songs on my iPod to help me cope.
The songs that helped me the most were “You’re Not Sorry” by Taylor Swift (not going to lie, the majority of the playlist was Taylor Swift), “A Little Bit Stronger” by Sara Evans, “Too Little, Too Late” by JoJo, “Since U Been Gone” by Kelly Clarkson, and almost every song off Adele’s sophomore album, “21.”
That was almost 10 years ago, and I think I remember these songs so well because they were instrumental to my healing process. The lyrics not only spoke to what I was going through but helped me realize my worth and move on. In short, listening to music was therapeutic.
I’m not alone in this, as one woman told Self magazine of how the Kelly Clarkson classic, “Since U Been Gone” has helped her cope through heartbreak. She wrote, “‘Since U Been Gone’ is one of the all-time best breakup songs. It reminds me of how draining my past relationships were. It makes me feel justified in my decision to move on. And it helps remember the goals I’ve accomplished since breaking things off — like the moment I landed a six-figure job or the time I bought myself a new car."
The lyrics not only spoke to what I was going through but helped me realize my worth and move on.
If you’re like me and love listening to sad songs when you’re heartbroken, you’re not alone. In fact, there’s scientific evidence for why we love sad songs.
What Science Says about Sad Songs and Heartbreak
There are simple explanations as to why listening to sad songs or breakup songs when you’re heartbroken makes you feel better. Crystalle Sese, PsyD, writes, “A breakup is a loss, so it evokes everything that comes with loss: confusion, denial, longing, anger, depression, despair. Through all this chaos, heartbreak can magnify our needs for comfort, support, and understanding. One way we can meet those needs is through music.”
More complex reasons can be found in scientific studies. One study in Scientific Reports shows a link between crying to a sad song and feeling good afterward. Participants of the study were asked to listen to six songs, three that they picked themselves, and to push a button if they felt chills or tears. Whether the song gave them chills or made them cry, all participants felt better after listening to their music.
In another study at Freie Universität Berlin, the study “surveyed 772 participants from around the globe to find out why people seek out sad music, particularly during breakups. Of the 470 participants who gave specific instances of when sad music is appealing, 108 reported lost relationships. The second most popular instance, according to 54 participants, was after suffering a loss of a loved one.”
When we let our emotions out, we let go of the negativity — it’s cathartic.
When the participants listened to sad music, they experienced positive emotions. Liila Taruffi, a researcher on the study, says, "The most frequent emotion evoked was nostalgia, which is a bittersweet emotion — it's more complex and it's partly positive. This helps explain why sad music is appealing and pleasurable for people."
In short, we feel better after we listen to sad songs because it allows us to feel and express our emotions. When we let our emotions out, we let go of the negativity — it’s cathartic. Letting go of these emotions feels good because they help us move on from heartbreak. It also helps to listen to breakup songs that are relatable to help us cope, which is why breakup songs are so popular.
Heartbreak Is a Universal Language
When you think of artists who sing about heartbreak, Taylor Swift naturally comes to mind. Her immense success can be attributed to her music being so relatable, and younger artists appear to be following her formula with great success.
You’ve probably jammed to the newly released single “Drivers License” by Olivia Rodrigo, which the 18-year-old singer wrote after a tough breakup. The success of Rodrigo’s #1 debut single signals that she could be the next Taylor Swift. Rodrigo described the track to Billboard as “my deepest insecurities in a four-minute song.” With heartbreaking lyrics like, “Guess you didn’t mean what you wrote in that song about me, ‘cause you said forever, now I drive alone past your street,” it’s easy to see how the song climbed the charts so quickly.
Music therapist Sandi Curtis, Ph.D., MT-BC, MTA, thinks she knows why this song is resonating with so many people. She says, "We hear our stories in the songs of others. We project onto those songs our own experiences and emotions.” Curtis continues, "Listening to sad songs allows us to process our emotions and our experiences. It allows us to be in the present, be mindful of our emotions, and deal with them, rather than stuffing them down."
The song is also popular for the same reason why so many of Swift’s breakup songs are so popular — heartbreak is a universal language. Regardless of age, gender, race, class, nationality, and sexuality, heartbreak is universal. This is why breakup songs are popular everywhere from the United States to South Korea, and why “Drivers License” is popular with so many different audiences (according to Saturday Night Live, thirty-something guys jam to the lyrics on a guy’s night out).
These songs aren’t only therapeutic for us to listen to, but they’re also therapeutic for the singers and songwriters to create.
Songwriters Say It’s Therapeutic for Them Too
It’s clear that Taylor Swift and Olivia Rodrigo use songwriting as a method to cope with heartbreak, but they’re not the only ones. Most singer/songwriters see it as therapeutic, and country singer Carly Pearce is the perfect example. After losing her producer to cancer and divorcing her husband, fellow country music singer Michael Ray, all within a year, Pearce channeled her pain into the seven-song EP “29.”
When discussing the authenticity of the lyrics in the EP, Pearce says, “I’m not relating myself to Taylor Swift, but I do feel like we have a common thread through this. When she puts out music, fans read between the lines and know that it’s like a story, like she’s writing such authentic lyrics of what she goes through in her life. And I feel like if I wouldn’t have done that, people wouldn’t have believed me. I’ve always just bled my heart out on a page. I’m just being honest because that’s how I was raised.”
Pearce also says that "writing sessions were therapy for me," and she hopes that her fans can relate to and learn something from her music. In an interview with Style Blueprint, Pearce says, “This collection of music is for anyone who’s on a journey, which I feel like we all are. Even though this is my personal story of what has happened, I think that anyone who’s struggling in their life, or with heartbreak or in loss, will be able to find something through this. Hopefully, they’ll see that you can come out better on the other side.”
Lucky for Pearce, following this formula has worked in her favor, as her EP is killing it on the iTunes charts.
We all know that listening to sad songs can be cathartic when we’re heartbroken, and there’s scientific evidence to back it up. It also goes to show why relatable music is so successful and why it’s so therapeutic for singer/songwriters.