16 March 2015

A Musician's Thoughts on Sad Music

My soundtrack that last spring of graduate school as I studied, wrote papers, washed dishes (it DID happen sometimes!) was something we were learning in choir, "When David Heard", a Biblical text set afresh by Eric Whitacre.

"When David heard that Absalom was slain, he went up into his chamber over the gate, and wept, and thus he said,  'O, my son Absalom!  Would God I had died for thee!'"

The music had arrived late, which put us behind our rehearsal schedule for this fifteen-minute no-small-task piece, and our director asked us to listen to it often, following our parts.

And yes, I did just say fifteen-minute piece, and yes, the text above is the entire text. 

It's David weeping for his son, after all, knowing he might have been able to do something more not only for his physical salvation, but also his spiritual salvation, yet seeing that last chance slip through his fingers with his son's death in battle.

It's a complicated story, and I think David's grief was complicated.  Which, quite frankly, makes that fifteen minutes of beautiful and haunting choral weeping seem quite appropriate.

(If you're reading on e-mail, click over to the blog to listen to the YouTube recording.)

Then last week my mom told me about a talk she heard called "Ten Things to do to be Happy".  One of the things, she said, was to listen to sad music.

Wait, what?

The logic had something to do with the sad music giving you a venue to release and process your own sadness, rather than hanging onto it at the expense of your overall happiness.

Well, I had been feeling the weight of stress--my own, and some very intense experiences other people in my life had been going through--and I decided to give it a try.  I knew just where to begin, too, with that choir piece from graduate school, beautiful choral weeping spanning fifteen minutes.

And it sort of worked.  It did give me space to process.

The music made me cry a little, and while the words repeated over and over I had space to think and pray about all the things going on around me that didn't really make much sense.  In fact, I listened to the piece several times over a couple of days. 

There came, however, a limit.  Because the sad music didn't just give me the space to process, and then move on, but it also kept me processing beyond my need for the moment, and it KEPT me feeling sad.  

I needed happier music, and I needed it right away if I wasn't going to wallow in sadness indefinitely.

Enter "Eat Your Vegetables" (video below), another favorite graduate school discovery.  It's about prolific gardens and vegetables and the kind of bounty we all want our soil to bring forth, with a good share of humor mixed in.

It didn't take many rounds of vegetable music before I really did start to feel happier again.

So in case you're wondering if you should try listening to sad music to help you be happier?  Here's my vote:  give yourself a few minutes to listen to something sad, but plan ahead of time that you'll listen to something happy, too.

Because in the opinion of this musician at least, music not only gives us the chance to express and process the emotions we already have, but also the chance to influence the emotions and thoughts we want to have.  And if you want happiness, you can't feed yourself sadness and weeping, however beautifully composed, forever.


  1. Fascinating ideas!! I've always LOVED, really really loved sad music and I think I've been using it in the ways your mom described all my life. Maybe different personalities and temperaments react to music in different ways, don't you think? I haven't had time to check the clips that you shared, but I'll go back to them later!

    Oh, when I was in grad school, I took a fascinating class taught by former advisor called "Music and Literature." My friend from Belgium actually wrote a research paper on sad music for that class!! I asked her to give me a copy of her paper, but she never did. I remember only a few things from her presentation. It's such an interesting subject!

  2. Reading blogs for the first time in... ages!! Gotta agree with you. I can't handle the sad music. Five minutes was all I could take. Maybe cuz I am looking for every way possible to fill my mind and heart with happiness ;)

  3. "but also the chance to influence the emotions and thoughts we want to have" Yep -- Well said. That's right! :)


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