Originally published in the Hindu Metroplus in April 2012.


‘Songs Sound Much Sadder’


A lot of people probably relate strongly to the popular culture-generated mantra of ‘when I get sad, I stop being sad and be awesome instead’. Yet, a different part of that culture is responsible for making us mope and bawl.


Last month, the results of a research poll conducted by the Telegraph on the most depressing songs placed R.E.M hit ‘Everybody Hurts’ at the top.


The survey also found gender-related insights. 84 per cent of men and nearly 90 per cent of women aged between 18 and 24 would tear up when listening to music. With those above the age of 55, the figure fell to 74 per cent.


The full list also included the following songs:

1. ‘Everybody Hurts’ – REM
2. ‘Candle in the Wind’ – Elton John
3. ‘The Living Years’ – Mike and the Mechanics
4. ‘I Will Always Love You’ – Whitney Houston
5. ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ – Sinead O’Connor
6. ‘Hallelujah’ – Leonard Cohen
7. ‘My Heart Will Go On’ – Celine Dion
8. ‘Fix You’ – Coldplay
9. ‘Seasons in the Sun’ – Terry Jacks
10. ‘Without You’ – Harry Nilsson
11. ‘Yesterday’ – The Beatles
12. ‘All By Myself’ – Eric Carmen
13. ‘My Way’ – Frank Sinatra
14. ‘Sound of Silence’ – Simon and Garfunkel
15. Aint No Sunshine’ – Bill Withers
16. ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ – Joy Division
17. ‘Leaving On a Jet Plane’ – Peter, Paul and Mary
18. ‘Eleanor Rigby’ – The Beatles
19. ‘Annie’s Song’ – John Denver
20. ‘Everybody’s Got to Learn Sometimes’ – The Korgis


A quick glance at nothing more than the titles of these songs is telling of one thing: love makes everyone depressed. Loneliness comes a close second, which explains the choice of songs such as ‘Sound of Silence’. There are the puzzling inclusions of ‘The Living Years’, which is more about regret, and Sinatra’s ‘My Way’, a song more about triumph than languish.


More importantly, the list raises the question: are the combination of music and the subject of love mentally unhealthy? Hansika Kapoor, a student who is researching clinical psychology at Mumbai University feels that a song’s “melodic and lyrical themes can exaggerate a depressed state, and in some cases even cause it”.


“But the latter is likely to be momentary, where you ‘feel sad’ after hearing a song. Misery loves miserable company,” she adds.


Perhaps another commonality shared by majority of the songs on the list includes the emphasis on lyrics and vocal delivery more than musical ingenuity. That way, the listener is more likely to be drawn in by the words.


Siddharth Basrur, singer-songwriter and vocalist of alternative metal band Goddess Gagged, explains why he writes sad songs: “I write them to express how I’m feeling. I find it cathartic. When I sing those songs, it reminds me of those times and makes me never want to go back there again.”


Rather than an objective to make his fans feel miserable, Basrur says his aim is one of catharsis, and to pass that on listeners as well. “I’m hoping my songs help the listeners in some way or the other. There have been people who’ve come up to me after gigs and told me how they’ve felt emotional during my set. It is definitely not my intention to make my audience feel depressed.”


In terms of psychology, there is also the question of how the term depression is different from sadness. Dr. Anuradha Sovani, professor at the University of Mumbai and consultant at the Institute for Psychological Health in Thane, says there is ambiguity in the way both terms are used: “Sadness is a generic term for a mood state which may be a passing one. Depression on the other hand, is a technical label for a diagnosable mood disorder which would require intervention. Unfortunately, the latter tends to be used loosely and hence the two words are often used interchangeably.”


“WHO defines depression as ‘a common mental disorder that presents with depressed mood, loss of interest or pleasure, feelings of guilt or low self-worth, disturbed sleep or appetite, low energy, and poor concentration. These problems can become chronic or recurrent and lead to substantial impairments in an individual’s ability to take care of his or her everyday responsibilities.’”


Dr. Sovani shares a similar opinion with Basrur when asked whether the combination is detrimental. “I do not think listening to songs is a saddening or depressing experience, since if it were so, nobody would have listened to them. Human beings enjoy experiencing a range of emotions, and songs that invoke sad memories are often part of this range. Hence, if songs of parting make one sad, they also remind us of the loved one we parted from. It is these memories that we look for, or this experience that underlines the fact that we are alive and responsive!”


Kapoor also points out that the surveyed age group has more things to get depressed about than just love: “Most of those things do not feature in the top 20 depressing songs list, (and) one of them being existential crises: the sense of not knowing which path one wants to tread, or likes treading, often occurring in young adulthood, when there are more options than decisions.”


There are probably a lot of famous songs out there about existential crises, but love seems to be the one subject people are more susceptible to bemoan. And for good reasons.