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Heartbreak Songs

The dictionary definition of heartbreak describes it as: crushing grief, anguish, or distress. Most of us are no stranger to heartbreak; and will travel through different experiences of it in our lifetimes. While there is no catch-all solution for heartbreak, music is one of the most ancient and powerful tools at our disposal to keep us company along the way. 

Research indicates that individuals experiencing distress, anguish, or sadness due to adverse circumstances, a traumatic event, or mental illness often gravitate toward “sad songs”; which begs the question

– why is it that when we are hurting, sad songs can feel so good? 

“Indeed, when people listen to sad music, only around 25% say they actually feel sad. The remainder experience other, often related emotions, most commonly nostalgia. This feeling of nostalgia can help increase our sense of social connectedness, mitigate feelings of meaningless, and reduce anxiety. Simulated sadness lets us experiment with and learn from this emotion. We can enhance our empathy, learn to better see things from other people’s perspectives, and try out various responses to sadness. Such learning experiences may have evolved to be pleasurable to encourage their use.” (McCarthy-Jones, 2021)

Sometimes it is more than just the messages or themes within the songs themselves; but the perceived personas of the individual artists – their own struggles, experiences and stories that connect the listener deeply to their music. Recent research using a framework of social theory defines this as the self-congruity effect of music (Greenberg et al., 2020); and can be understood more simply as relatability. We feel connected to artists whom we identify as having similar personality traits to our own.

We hear the human experience within the music and feel comforted; somehow less alone, knowing that a complete stranger has experienced heartbreak too – and in some cases, their experiences feel almost identical to ours.

Most significant in the work of clinical music therapists is the impact of music on the human brain and nervous system; and the highly social aspects of music experiences. Music has a meaningful and measurable impact on the brain mechanisms crucial to human connection. Music surrounds us even pre-birth; and while culture and context shape and diversify the global human experience of music we can observe consistent patterns across cultures of the ways music preferences and experiences communicate both group affiliation and to express individual identity. Recent research also indicates that music listening and music production boost our capacity for both cognitive and affective empathy; allowing us to both understand and share each other’s mental states (Greenberg et. al., 2021). We become tuned into one another; and our capacity for connection is strengthened. At the same time, cortisol levels are decreased – helping us manage acute physiological symptoms of distress; and our dopamine-reward circuitry is activated; driving our motivation and placing us on the path to healing from heartbreak.

As clinicians working to support the emotional well-being of diverse populations; we may sometimes encounter apprehension around incorporating our client’s preferred music containing themes of ‘sadness’ or ‘anger.’ This is perhaps rooted in the notion that our mood-state will mirror the music that we listen to. While of course, we know that music can shift our mood state – the research indicates that it is not quite that simple. Music is perhaps best described as our mirror; allowing us to become in-touch with our own mood state; and most importantly – giving us a tool; both language and non-verbal musical elements to express and share our feelings and experiences with others. We can use different themes or elements located in the music to test what we see in the mirror; and to experience new parts of ourselves. At the same time, meeting ourselves as we are is critical – particularly in acute experiences of grief or heartbreak; so that we have the tools to not only look inward, but reach outward and be comforted and held in community. The beautiful thing is, this might be possible simply by listening to the song or artist who we have identified as sharing our experience. For that moment we are completely understood and we are not alone.

As music therapists, we can witness this experience with our clients and support them to expand it to a social or relationship community context – starting with trusting that they know the right song, in the moment they need it most.

– Jesse Dollimont, MTA



The Social Neuroscience of Music: Understanding the Social Brain Through Human Song by David M. Greenberg, Jean Decety, and Ilanit Gordon (2021) published in American Psychologist (The American Psychological Association)

The Self-Congruity Effect of Music by David M. Greenberg, Sandra Matz, H. Andrew Schwartz and Kai R. Fricke (2020) published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: Personality Processes and Individual Differences (The American Psychological Association)  

Why Sad Songs Make You Feel Good by Simon McCarthy Jones (2021) published in ‘The Conversation’