The cathartic power of sad songs

Written by Cam Khalid
Art by Volc Xia

Calling 2020 a rough year would be an understatement. For someone who works, lives, and breathes continents away from her family, the pandemic has made me feel more alone than ever. Plus, having a history with depression, I have this lingering fear that my mood might switch at any moment, going from bad to worse.

As if that wasn’t bad enough – like many people, I was in constant fear of losing my job, my loved ones, my friends, and my sanity. There was just too much stress and grief to endure in 365 days. Keeping contact with family and friends through video calls does wonders for my mental health, but when time zones become an issue and some things are harder to talk about, I find myself curating Spotify playlists to soothe my nerves.

As Spotify revealed, mental health playlists have seen a 57% increase in streams from 2019. The typical mental health playlist consists of soothing tunes and ambient instrumentals, but mine rarely do. Instead, I find comfort in lyrics centered around melancholia.

I have to give credit to the dozens of sad songs by artists such as Cat Power, The Smiths, and Radiohead that allowed me to reflect and grow, albeit slowly. It has taken me six months and a myriad of replays to fully confront the fact that I have lost a best friend during the pandemic. 

Before, we would check up on each other everyday through texts, phone calls and even in-person. But those days slowly died out during the lockdown. Not only did it keep us socially distanced, but it also fizzled and fractured our friendship. And sadly, neither of us wanted to address the radio silence. I was afraid to confront her and make matters worse. But time eventually made it irreversible.

The reality of it all finally sank in on one Sunday evening when the words of Finneas’ I Lost A Friend hit hard. “I know I’ll be alright / But I’m not tonight / I’ll be lying awake / Countin’ all the mistakes I’ve made.” The realization that I have lost my best friend led me to a forlorn funk soundtracked by a curated playlist of minor key songs.

When I’m at my most vulnerable, even a somber instrumental track would trigger a traumatic memory, causing me to break down and turn on the waterworks. I blame the song’s minor tonality.  However, through the power of a good cry, I find a profound side of my emotional self, allowing me to express, experience and explore some of the most complex amalgams of sad, mad and – eventually – glad. 

Sometimes it takes a heartbreaking event and melancholic music for me to identify the denial (that everything will work out on its own), accept the reality (that sometimes it won’t) and move on (with the better version of myself). Don’t get me wrong – it’s still an upsetting memory but I wouldn’t have been able to move on without the comfort of my melancholy mixtape.

Odd as it may sound, sadness evoked by music also seems pleasing in its own way. As Aristotle put it in Poetics: the dramatization of a tragedy acts as a means of “catharsis” where music or drama that overwhelms an audience with a certain emotion somehow purges it too. Backed by studies from Freie Universität Berlin and University of South Florida, soul-shattering music can increase the level of prolactin, a hormone that combats grief, and release dopamine, a “feel good” hormone.

Struggling with mental health alone can feel very isolating and finding solace in my bedroom with nothing but music on has helped me relieve anxiety, melt stress away, and lift my spirits. It has also helped me reflect on some unresolved emotions. 

Sometimes the story behind a song can connect me with a past experience, where I empathize with the musician and take comfort that someone else is going through the same thing as me. This was the case with Finneas’ I Lost A Friend, among many other songs. And if there’s light at the end of the song’s tunnel, it allows me to vicariously live through that sonic journey – with the hopes it’ll translate to real life.

My Melancholy Mixtape:

  1. Ivy by Frank Ocean
  2. Drew Barrymore by SZA
  3. The Suburbs by Arcade Fire
  4. Piledriver Waltz by Alex Turner
  5. Should Have Known Better by Sufjan Stevens
  6. Eugene by Arlo Parks
  7. Go Home by Julien Baker
  8. Fade Into You by Mazzy Star
  9. Maps by Yeah Yeah Yeahs
  10. Knife by Grizzly Bear
  11. Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want by The Smiths