Do sad songs make us feel better?

Adam Brent Houghtaling explores melancholy music and how it affects us.

Charles Peterson, Courtesy of Don Peterson/ITVS/AP
Billie Holiday's 'Strange Fruit' topped Adam Brent Houghtaling's list of the saddest songs ever released.

Adam Brent Houghtaling, a New York-based author, should be in quite a sour mood by now. After all, he spent months listening to the saddest music ever made, from sorrowful symphonies to tearjerker Billie Holliday tunes to just about every Leonard Cohen song ever.

But Houghtaling, author of the new book "This Will End in Tears: The Miserabilist Guide to Music," is actually pretty chipper, all things – and all songs – considered. His fascinating examination of centuries of downer music is getting plenty of attention, and his ranking of the Top 100 Saddest Songs has spawned debate.

I asked Houghtaling to explain what he's learned and ponder why we like to turn to blue notes, especially when we're notably blue.

Q: What makes sad songs unique?

A: Sad songs are a really intimate thing. They're not something you listen to with all your friends at a dinner party or when you're hanging out at a lake house with your buddies. You're doing it by yourself.

If you're listening to a lot of sad music, it's because you're not in a great state of mind. You've just gotten your heart broken or suffered some kind of loss. It becomes intimate, but it's also comforting in a way.

Q: Can sad songs actually be good for us when we're feeling down?

A: There's this idea that listening to sad songs may drag us deeper into our despair. But it may also help us go deeper into a despair and focus on whatever the problem is that brought us to that point.

Q: Do you mean a kind of catharsis?

 A: I found catharsis to be a very tricky topic, but yeah, it's the idea that when you connect with an artist or a song, you feel like someone else is out there, someone has gone through this before, you're not alone.

There's a lot of ways that sad songs help us get through the despair and put us back on track.

Q: How did researching your book affect you personally?

A: It took me a couple of years, if not a little more, to write the book, and I was deeply immersed in the saddest stuff I could find, listening to it over and over again.

My mood depended on what was going on in my life. If everything was going OK, it didn't affect me much. But if a couple things went wrong, it didn't help.

It wasn't always the best thing for me. But I had a deadline.

Q: Do you feel like you're celebrating sad songs?

A: I want to celebrate being melancholy in the ruminative sense, not depression itself.

That's nothing I want to make light of and really affects people's lives in a terrible way. When you're depressed, you can't do a heck of a lot and you don't feel a lot of joy.

But when I'm kind of melancholic, I can still do all that stuff. I feel peaceful and comforted when I'm in that head space.

I wanted to make a case for enjoying that and not trying to end it. These moments of sadness are an important part of life, and you shouldn't necessarily try to chase them away at all costs.

Q: What did you think about when you developed your Top 100 Saddest Songs list, which is topped by "Adagio for Strings" (composed by Samuel Barber) and "Strange Fruit" (sung by Billie Holiday)?

A: I wanted to include artists who really owned sadness, not just people who did a couple of sad songs.

Q: Do the artists behind these songs tend to have difficult lives?

A: It just makes sense that artists who deal with emotional turmoil would have a truer, stronger sense of the material than someone who doesn't necessarily know sadness beyond a bad day or weekend. Instead, it's someone who knows a bad year or a decade.

Q: What makes a good sad song?

A: There isn't any one thing on its own that does it.

I looked at slow tempo, which can do a good job of slowing your heart rate down. But ambient music has slow tempo too, and it's not necessarily sad. I looked at minor chords, but there are plenty of upbeat songs that have minor chords. Then there are lyrics, but there are plenty of raging songs that are about loss, grief and heartbreak.

Then I got into the little things, like how someone's voice can help convey a certain kind of sadness. There are these kinds of really beat-up and broken voices, like Billie Holliday's in her last years, that convey "I've been through it all, and this is a story I have to tell."

There's also something about low-fi music, this idea that this is the honest truth: We didn't shine this up or produce it for you. It's coming from a kid in his bedroom with a broken heart.

Q: Would you prescribe sad songs to a sad person?

A: I don't think I'd have to. They probably would have found them on their own.

To listen to Houghtaling's selection of the saddest songs of all time, sign up for the music service Spotify and head to this link:

Randy Dotinga is a Monitor contributor.

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