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We Asked a Doctor Why People Love Listening to Depressing Music on Comedowns

We spoke to an Oxford academic about why you can't stop playing Aphex Twin records the morning after.

by Tom Usher
Jan 21 2016, 2:43pm

Photo by Mike Renlud

Life; in general, is a shitstorm. Every time a brief glimmer of hope and happiness emerges through the thicket of absolute fuckery that is day to day living, it get's extinguished by yet more bollocks. I mean, I'm talking layers upon layers of the stuff. Cut the world in half and under the mud and the silt and the igneous rock there's one massive fucking radiating bollock.

It's strange then that something as naturally joyous as music is usually used by humans to drive themselves deeper into the mire of woe that is being alive.

For example when I've come off the back of particularly damaging psychic trauma, say a break-up, my pet dying (RIP Sniffles) or any given weekend, my go to place is the comforting lure of songs so depressing that they sound like they were crafted from the salty tears of Morrissey himself. If he was sitting in a layby on the M1. And it was raining. And it was Thursday. And he'd forgotten his sandwiches. And his tax return was due.

I don't know why I always want to listen to these kinds of things when I'm down. I've always wondered at the incongruousness of listening to sad songs when we're already at our most miserable. Surely as properly functioning organisms we would always seek to repair any damage, psychological or not, by taking positive steps against it. When I'm angry I try to calm down. When I'm scared I try to reassure myself. So why when we're depressed do we sometimes want to accentuate it, almost enjoy it, revel in it? What is it about listening to ambient dirges when we're on a comedown, or break up, that make them seem almost hauntingly enjoyable?

Photo by Bob Foster

To find out a little bit more about why the fuck I keep listening to Aphex Twin's "Rhubarb" every Monday, I spoke to Dr. Jonna Vuoskoski, a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Oxford University Faculty of Music. Her PhD was literally on the role of music-induced emotions, so maybe she's also bang into Aphex Twin's Selected Ambient Works as well.

According to Jonna, there are a number of varying reasons and strategies we have for listening to weepy tunes. Firstly, sad music can help you work through negative feelings; in a process called 'emotional regulation': Emotional regulation, she tells me, occurs because, "people might not know why they need to listen to certain music, just that they do, and once they start listening to the music they will begin to analyze their emotional state and it will be helpful in understanding what they're going through." So all of that Travis you were listening to genuinely helped you process why it was always raining on you.

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Secondly: empathy. You know that time when you locked yourself in a dark room for all of Monday evening with R&B Anthems: The Collection and ended up feeling like KC and Jojo we're actually speaking to you? Like, literally, to you? Well apparently we use sad music not just to empathize, but also to feel empathy being reciprocated to us. When people hear lyrics they relate to they feel like the singer has "been through the same things as us, and so feel less alone in their experience and receive solace from the music in that sense."

The most interesting element of why we want to wallow to the Cure on a wet and windy night is how it affects us physically. Obviously being down in the dumps is not just a psychological state but also a physical one, brought on by many chemical, neurological and hormonal changes in our body. According to Dr. Vuoskoska, folks sometimes listen to downbeat music because they "want to momentarily strengthen or intensify their feelings using music and through intensifying them actually release them."

This is done because when listening to miserable music consoling hormones are released like prolactin (used for sexual gratification), oxytocin (used for social bonding) and most importantly everyone's favourite neural transmitter; my friend and yours, dopamine (used for having a jolly). Because although it may seem that you are feeling a simple state of depressed self-pity when knee deep in a two hour chill-step mix, it's actually a lot more complex than that. Other feelings are occurring simultaneously, like "peacefulness, relaxation and of being moved or being in awe," which makes the body feel like something positive is happening, leading to a dopamine release even if we consciously think we're depressed. This dopamine release could also explain why it can help when we're particularly serotonin depleted after a heavy weekend as well.

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This is why it even makes sense to self indulge in gloomy tunes from an evolutionary point of view. As recent high profile media deaths have shown, sad states can bring people closer together. Also as Dr. Jonna explained to me, her research has shown that people who enjoy sad music are more likely to share two important socially binding personality traits: empathy and appreciation of beauty, or aesthetic experience. So "physiologically we feel the effects of Oxytocin when we empathize and Dopamine when we see the appreciation in beauty," she says. This would explain why everyone is bang on posting Youtube tributes when any given pop hero dies, they just want to share in the empathetic, beauty appreciating love-in that is being sad together.

The only thing that I couldn't understand was why happier music wasn't the go to choice for getting us out of a funk. If anything, it almost feels worse listening to an upbeat track when you are down. Have you ever had someone play some happy hardcore when you are 10 hours into an afterjam? Did it make you want to punch them in their fucking face? Well there's a scientific reason for that! And it's not the fact that happy hardcore is sent from the devil! Dr. Jonna says that people only listen to music that suits their mood, and that to listen to a type of music that does not match your temperament can be too vast a contrast and be unrelatable to the listener.

Photo by Bob Foster

She explains that when doing music therapy sessions for alleviating depression the subject would "start with sad music, then gradually get more and more positive throughout. This way you are guiding your emotional state using music, rather than just going straight into a happy type of music which can be jarring and not resonate with the subject." So, kind of like how the first time you go back into the gym after a month off, your physical fitness is so bad that you get a hernia putting your shorts on, when you're feeling fragile your emotional fitness needs gradually nurturing over time as well, and to go from sad to happy in one fell swoop would give you an emotional hernia of epic proportions.

Seems like there is a myriad of good reasons to bang out the entirety of Chilled Ibiza: Sunset Mix edition whenever you're feeling worse for wear then. Not only does it help you socially bond with your fellow man, which as everyone knows is totally wicked and cool, it also makes you regulate your negative emotions and via dopamine and oxytocin, and helps to replenish all that tasty serotonin you've lost over the weekend. If there was ever a reason to allow yourself to get into some Zero 7 then surely that's enough? Now, excuse me, I've got a Morphine boxset to get through.

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