My Nine-Hour Breakup Playlist, Explained by Scientists

“I liked hearing this chorus of familiar voices say all the things we weren’t saying.”
June 30, 2017, 5:11pm
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I was thinking about breaking up with Abbey when a woman in a cowboy hat got onstage and seemed to implore me directly, "If you got leavin' on your mind, tell me now, get it over. Hurt me now, get it over."

Abbey and I were at an American Legion Hall in Nashville. It had a stage back-dropped by an American flag formed from Christmas lights, but otherwise resembled every American Legion Hall everywhere, with cluttered corners of old trophies and medals and sticky-looking bars and tables.

It was a Patsy Cline tribute show. Abbey's friend, our host for the weekend, is an American roots singer (like every third person in Nashville) and one of a dozen female singers participating. As the backing band remained, one siren after another—with an adherence to Western wear that ranged from cowboy boots with American Apparel to the full Grand Ole Opry look—walked up to belt out one of Cline's portraits of heartache. "Leavin' On Your Mind," "She's Got You," "I Fall to Pieces,"—these songs all have the same narrative. Throughout her discography, Cline was shattered, broken, exasperated and left neurotic by a never-ending succession of breakups. The title of her signature song "Crazy" was meant as the narrator's self-diagnosis after another doomed romance. Raw female vulnerability was apparently big in her day and still had pull; few people in the room were alive when she was.

I tried not to look at Abbey (not her real name). We had been together for 10 months. It was love, but we wanted different things: I wanted to move in and share a life with someone. Someday. She told me repeatedly, "I don't think I'd ever be OK living together." She dropped that into every conversation about the future. There was the kind of tension and friction that results from an impasse hanging in the air. I planned on ending things when we got home. This show was like a visit from the ghosts of breakups future.

Three weeks later, I did break up with Abbey. I had never been the one to end a long-term relationship and it's excruciating (which is not to make any comparison to how it was for her). She was not expecting it, did not want it and even said she could come around on the living-together thing. But like all relationship-enders, I thought it was for the best in the long run, so I stood firm, watching her cry and knowing I was taking an icepick to her heart.

I spent the next weeks in a haze. Ending a relationship is certainly not about immediate gratification and my decision came with uncertainty, which compounded into remorse, guilt and depression. When my friends weren't emotionally babysitting me, with their generous brunch and happy hour invites, I noticed how my apartment—which is also my workspace—felt silent and haunted, like one of those dead malls in an online gallery.

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So I queued it up: The thing that got me through my last big breakup two years prior, when my girlfriend Sarah took a trip to the San Francisco Bay and called to say she wasn't coming back. ("I think this is where I need to be now," she said, a sentiment echoed by countless 26-year-olds who visit the Bay.) My solace then was the Ultimate Break-Up Song Playlist.

I compiled it on Spotify it as a geeky way to channel my heartache over Sarah, back when I was writing a lot of music listicles. It includes all the big obvious ones ("Yesterday," "The Thrill Is Gone," "Ain't No Sunshine," "Nothing Compares 2 U," etc.) alongside the worthwhile minor hits and album tracks related to breakups I recalled from years of CD collecting and MP3 downloading. In a way, the lesser-known songs have more punch. The edge of "Every Breath You Take" has been dulled by every time I heard it at a grocery store. "Space and Time" by Brit-rock band The Verve—with its brutal opening of "There ain't no space and time to keep our love alive / We have existence and it's all we share"—is still sharp.

After Abbey, I expanded it to 146 songs, adding two more from Patsy Cline, and reordered it. Deciding if "Ms. Jackson" fit well between "Band of Gold" and "Don't Speak" was the closest I came to emotional control. I listened to all nine hours almost every day, beginning again at the first song, Roy Orbison's "Only the Lonely," when it ended. Abbey and I had fallen into a state of no contact and I liked hearing this constant chorus of country crooners, blues singers, alt-rock shriekers, familiar voices from classic rock and wounded soul men and women say all the things we weren't saying.

Neuroscientists and psychologists also have sought explanations for why people like sad songs, a fact that seems at odds with the basic psychological assessment that it's undesirable to feel miserable. "Sadness is an experience we don't want to seek out," Matthew Sachs, a doctoral student in brain and cognitive science at the University of Southern California, told me. "Yet tragedy is something found in all art and enjoyed in that context." Thinkers as far back as Aristotle have contemplated this "tragedy paradox."

The subfield of music cognition science has produced a body of research examining why people are drawn to downer music. Sachs, who co-authored a review of scientific interest the subject, says many researchers have viewed the question in the context of a person's capacity to understand sonic and emotional cues from their environment, abilities he calls "evolutionary significant."

"It can be argued that the survival of our ancient ancestors depended on their ability to detect patterns in sounds, derive meaning from them, and adjust their behavior accordingly," once wrote Patrik N. Juslin, who directs research in music psychology at Uppsala University in Sweden. Juslin argues that this "explains emotional responses to music in terms of a large set of psychological mechanisms."

Humans once had to look to each distress in each other to understand a plague or famine had come. Being evolutionarily beneficial, that primordial need to tap into the negative emotions of those around us has stayed with us—perhaps leading us to become engaged when we're driving to work and we hear the forlorn sounds of someone like Jeff Buckley or Roy Orbison on the radio.

Sad music also offers a safe place from which to process sad emotions, Sachs says, away from chaotic experiences of actual grief and loss, which activate danger instincts that leave little room for immediate reflection. "When nothing immediate is happening," he says, "you are given a chance to extract meaning from it."

Sinead O'Connor's "Last Day of Our Acquaintance" reminds me of driving to Abbey's house for the dreaded act of carrying out the separation, but the song does not involve any of the emotional chaos of that event. It's the same four minutes and 38 seconds every time I replay it and hearing it normalizes the idea of a last day of an "acquaintance."

This neutralizing effect is even true for those who write sad songs. E.May, a folk rock-ish performer living in West Virginia, has processed her emotions through songwriting since her father died when she was a child. A few years ago, she wrote a song about the visceral impact of a breakup called "The Same," full of images of bones and hearts. ("This is my heart, my beating heart / It still loves you through the pain / I tried to stop, I tried to stop / And it loves you all the same.")

"I felt so sad when I was writing it, just missing that thing of being in love," she remembers. She thought she had finally written a song too personal and hoped it would die at the self-recorded demo stage, but her producer insisted "The Same" be on her upcoming album. After countless takes and live performances, she says it's been dulled, removed several times from the actual breakup. "Now that it's out there, I don't feel like it's about me anymore," says E.May. "I don't associate it with the relationship but all my memories of recording and performing it."

Researchers have found that those who are already bummed out are more drawn to sad music. To explain this, they have pulled another idea from evolutionary psychology, Sach says, that of "depressive realism." "When you are sad you tend to more attentive to your environment," Sach says, "you need to take more from it psychologically because you sense something is wrong."

Particularly, those operating with a sense of "depressive realism" are less prone to optimism or positively-bent biases. They are looking for patterns of pain and signs of unhappiness and might find it in sad music, whereas happier genres might present a feeling or worldview that doesn't seem consistent or realistic to them.

Breakup songs particularly have "a range of 'flavors,'" Eerola notes, "from the angry and bitter ones to more mellow and accepting ones, so typically the listeners will know what the exact flavor they need is."

Songs that really spoke to me after I broke up with Abbey included Bob Dylan's "Most of the Time," Hüsker Dü's "Don't Want to Know if You Are Lonely" and Duran Duran's "Ordinary World." (Scoff if you will but that line, "There's an ordinary world somehow I have to find" perfectly describes the emotional struggle when your everyday life has been upended.) Someone on the other end of a breakup might find more solace in "Train in Vain," "Back to Black" or "Fuck You."

Some music cognition researchers have considered chemical reactions. David Huron, a professor in the School of Music at Ohio State University, has suggested that prolactin enables the enjoyment of sad music. The hormone is released by endocrine neurons in response to negative emotions and anguish in others, particularly through seeing tears. It's key to causing nursing mothers to lactate in response to a baby's crying. Prolactin is also a comforting brain chemical. Because it's released by absorbing the pain of others, queuing up a sad song might give a suffering person a quick hit of prolactin, Huron theorizes, though neither he nor any other researcher has actually tested prolactin levels in subjects listening to music. (In an email, Huron declined to discuss his theory with me, citing a busy schedule.)

Instead of theorizing about brain mechanisms and scouring psychological theories, some researchers have simply asked people why they like sad music. A study from the University of New South Wales in Australia found that the top three reasons were "to elicit strong arousal emotion that was both congruent and opposite to their current mood state," the ''psychological benefits of catharsis, emotional connection or emotional resolution" and "to enable grief, elicit memories, or simply disengage from negative stimuli."

In their own review, Sachs and his coauthors found that sad music was pleasurable under three conditions: "it is perceived as non-threatening," "it is aesthetically pleasing," and "it produces psychological benefits," such as mood regulation, ability to empathize and reflection. I think this is all to say that sad music elicits more than sadness.

I do enjoy songs on my playlist that adhere to a simple structure and single sentiment, like the Mo-Town and '60s rock ones. There's an emotional consistency within them that doesn't exist in the mind of the newly broken up. When Roger McGuinn of The Byrds sings, "I'll probably feel a whole lot better when you're gone," every verse supports the claim of that chorus. It's a nice respite from the zigzagging of blame and guilt and relief and remorse of the actual torrid separation experience.

But my favorites are the ones that include a deep appreciation of the other person and the bond, with an acknowledgment it's over: "Last Goodbye" by Jeff Buckley, "Good Woman" by Cat Power, "Songbird" by Fleetwood Mac, "Hey, That's No Way to Say Goodbye" by Leonard Cohen, "I Will Always Love You" as done by Dolly Parton. (It is a breakup song. Listen to the verses. This subtlety is lost in Whitney Houston's showboating version.) It's like the sadness of the breakup is a starting point to encompassing all of the relationship and its beauty. Few songs fit such a fullness of emotion into three or four minutes.

There's an obscure song by prolific singer/songwriter Richard Thompson called "The Ghost of You Walks," on the Ultimate Break-Up Playlist, wedged between the much more famous "I Can't Make You Love Me" and "Go Your Own Way." "Love like that, won't let go," he sings in his tender English inflection against an acoustic guitar and cello. "It's got some kind of a mind of its own / I can't break out and I can't break in / At least we lived, took it all at a rush / At least we loved too much / Felt too much, cared too much."

It's a breakup song and it's a love song, the kind of love song that can't be written or sung when the relationship is happening and has yet to be measured or given the power that comes with memory. It does make me think of Abbey and all our kisses and slow mornings and interstate travel and the immensity and uncontrollability of falling in love. And I would much rather have that right now than silence.

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