Breakup might be easier with sad music

Researchers say sad music can help with an interpersonal loss such as a breakup or death.
(Reuben Munoz / Los Angeles Times)

Just got dumped? Researchers say you are more likely to turn to “I Knew You Were Trouble” than “Call Me Maybe.”

That’s because what you’re likely to be looking for is the support of an empathetic pal, they say. On the other hand, if someone dents the back of your car in the mall parking lot, the happy song could cheer you up.

The researchers, writing in the August issue of the Journal of Consumer Research, wanted to know what prompted people to seek congruent music, art and film and what circumstances prompted them to find noncongruent art.


“Music, movies, paintings or novels that are compatible with our current mood and feelings, akin to an empathetic friend, are more appreciated when we experience broken or failing relationships,” the researchers wrote.

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Research has shown that consumers in a negative mood look for comedy or cheerful music, but the researchers of the three new studies say that’s not always the case.

It is true, the researchers said, when the distress in question isn’t personal – an accident, loss of money, perhaps.

In one experiment, the researchers presented 233 people with 12 negative situations, such as losing someone or failing to achieve a goal. Half the people were asked what sort of friend (funny or empathetic, for examples) they’d turn to, and half what sort of music (sad or cheerful). The responses were similar, whether choosing a person or music.

In the second experiment, they asked 76 people the sort of music they’d choose if frustrated – by someone or by something. Again, the people chose angry music more often when frustrated by a person.

Finally, 11 people were asked to write about a loss – about an interpersonal loss such as a death or breakup, and about a competitive loss such as in academics or career. Then they were asked to rate how they felt about the loss and choose from among 10 song titles (almost all fictional) they’d like to listen to after the loss. The results were similar to the earlier experiments.

“Our aesthetic preference is similar to our preference for whom we want to be with and is contingent on how we are treated by and connected with others,” wrote the researchers, who are from the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology Business School, the Brazilian School of Public and Business Administration, and UC Berkeley.

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