The Music and the Misery


Let’s clear the air before we get going: at some point since 2011, we’ve all cried to Adele’s “Someone Like You.” I have, you have – we have all bawled our eyes out and all of us have to accept this fact and move forward with our lives as best we can. If for some reason you have lived under a rock or had no access to the internet since then, here is the song I am talking about:

What makes the audience susceptible to that song and other sad tracks as well? Some people might identify with the lyrics, though if you connect with stalking your ex and telling them unannounced that you will date someone who looks and acts just like them, you might need some professional help. Others might feel an emotional attachment to the instrumentals, the simple but effective piano riff that compliments Adele’s vocals throughout the song. Could there be a rational explanation for our unbridled sobbing? It is a question that has been asked for generations: do we listen to pop music because we are miserable, or are we miserable because we listen to pop music?

Surprisingly, their is a reason to the madness and sadness. Even if you are not literate in musical theory or can list your top five sad songs of all time, human brains are hardwired to recognize when certain songs are supposed to make you feel unreasonably good or guilty that you haven’t called you grandmother in over a week. While I am not a scientist, I will attempt to make sense of why people react so strongly to certain tunes. Yes, even a song sung by Bret Michaels. There is no shame in that.

On a basic level, the human brain can subliminally distinguish between “happy” and “sad” notes. Even if you have never heard a certain song before, you can tell if it is supposed to be an uplifting or depressing work. The difference is whether or not a note or chord is major or minor. Major chords tend to sound more upbeat and uplifting, whereas songs in a minor key are usually sadder and make you evaluate your life decisions more intensely. Take R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion,” for example. Here is the original version:

And a version reworked to be in a major key:

Hear how the latter is a catchy, radio-ready single and the other an endearing, if depressing number? However, as stated earlier, this is just the basic level of understanding the science behind sad songs.

Part of the reason music listeners enjoy depressing tunes lies in the way in the structure of the song’s melody. The term is known as “appoggiatura.” In layman’s terms, this means a note in the melody that deliberately clashes or sounds wrong with the others, not so much as to be completely out of place, but enough to make your brain subconsciously question why it is there. Once the song returns to the “correct” notes, you instinctively calm down and want to apologize to every person you have ever done something horrible to. A perfect example of this is “Rainbow Connection,” sung by the legendary Kermit the Frog.

When Kermit sings, “Someday we’ll find it/ the rainbow conn-,” it is a natural flow, but as soon as he says “-nec,” the listener feels a subliminal unease, at least until the frog returns to the “regular” melody with “-tion. The lovers, the dreamers, and me.” It is this transition that sends waves of emotion and nostalgia over you, and most likely the primary reason the song was nominated for an Academy Award back in the day.

Wouldn’t it not be great if every popular song reminded us of the good times, and not that night where we “accidentally” texted our ex to tell them just how much we missed them? Ideally, the answer would be yes, but in reality, many listeners at some point (if not most of the time) will get satisfaction of depressing songs, and the reason is because they make us cry.

When a person starts shedding tears, the human body naturally releases dopamine into the system, making one feel good (eventually) despite all the painful memories from that high school breakup that are being brought to the forefront of our consciousness. This makes it hard to quit listening to those songs: even though I know I should not listen to The Smiths all day, I do it anyway, because after hours of lyrics about doomed relationships and being socially awkward, I can actually feel better about my life. This reaction can occur for any song that reminds a person of a certain period in their life, providing a rational explanation for listening to Poison or Cinderella before falling asleep in the early hours of the morning. Because listeners really needed a rational explanation for “Don’t Know What You Got “Till It’s Gone).” Seriously, because there is no other reason why a band like this could evoke such strong reactions from listeners.

So when you start crying to Usher in the Green Bean, or just have to listen to The Used to make sense of all the stress in your life, don’t feel the need to explain yourself. Know that you are not alone, and that pop music will always elicit a response from listeners, no matter how cheesy the song is. With that, I am off to listen to My Chemical Romance and The National, and I will enjoy every minute of it.

Jack Butcher is a senior history major. He can be reached at or on Twitter @WklyJButcher.



  1. That second to last video should be My Chemical Romance, not The Used, though both are great examples of depressing “emo” bands from middle school. My bad.


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