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Why Depressing Music Cheers Me Up


I’d never really noticed it before but I love listening to depressing music. Actually, let me clarify that a bit. I love listening to music that you probably find depressing. Or you may not. Perhaps if I list some of the albums that have a high play count in iTunes you can decide which side of the line you stand on:

  • Radiohead – OK Computer (’nuff said)
  • The Stills – Logic Will Break Your Heart (one of my favourites – all melancholy gold)
  • Mogwai – Young Team (particularly ‘R U Still in 2 It?’ – which is somewhat dark)
  • Beck – Odelay (and ‘Jack-Ass’ is by far and away the most played track)
  • Board Of Canada – Music Has The Right To Children
  • The Supernaturals – A Tune A Day (an album entirely filled with break-up songs)
  • Doves – The Last Broadcast (I don’t think it’s depressing – but ‘others’ do)
  • Eels – End Times (he was in a grim place when he wrote this one)
  • Fleetwood Mac – Rumours (probably started the whole thing for me)

My perfect song formula (and the kind of music I’d record if I could play the guitar and sing – think yourself lucky I can do neither) is quite often just a guy and his guitar. He’s probably singing about being in dark place where he’s looking back on when things were good. When he was happy. When he fell asleep in the arms of his lover. How he and his girl danced across poppy fields laughing all the way. How life was great, everything flowed and he was a different man. He was riding on the crest of a wave, the summit of a mountain. And then he’ll reflect on how those days are gone. How he’s a shadow of his former self. How he knows those days will never come back. How life is pointless. How he’s at the end of his tether and he can’t see a way out. How he wished he could turn the clock back. Wondering how it all went wrong and realising it was – perhaps inevitably – his fault for not knowing when he had it good.

Hmmm, ok, I’ll admit, that does sound pretty depressing. But the funny thing is that when I hear a song like that it makes me smile. Even when I’ve been in the depths of despair in my own life, listening to this sort of music never fails to cheer me up. And I think it’s all about my optimistic outlook on life. The way I see it, these songs aren’t about the depression and down times, but more looking at the happier times from a place of darkness. And if you’re in a dark room and someone shines a torch in your eyes it seems pretty frickin’ bright. Shine a torch in your eyes in daylight and you won’t bat an eyelid. For me the same rule applies with this sort of melancholy music.

I learned about my ‘depressing’ musical tastes from my long suffering wife. Whenever we drive anywhere I like to put a mix tape together (well, strictly speaking it’s a CD, but ‘mix tape’ is more old school) or create a playlist on my iPhone and plug that in. In the early days of creating these mixes I’d fill them with bands like those listed above combined with a few singalong classics that I can murder as we cruise along the motorway. The wife’s a tolerant wee thing on the whole but she kept criticising my choice of ‘depressing’ music and could I put something on that didn’t make her want to jump out of the car at high speed? I assumed she was just being negative, but have had it confirmed by an independent panel of judges (other people I know) that no, it’s me. But it never depresses me.

Many years ago my father told me that I’d only ever understand love songs when I’ve been in love. That I’d know when I’d listen to the lyrics and magically they’d make sense. He was right. Maybe you only understand melancholy music when you’ve been melancholy yourself. And listening to music that reminds me of the lows I’ve been through reminds me that I’m not the only one and that I’m not in that place now. That things can always get worse so I should make the most of right now. Plus when I remember the lows the first thing that springs to mind is the highs – the happy times before the broken heart.

I put together a playlist on Spotify of all the songs that ever meant anything to me – it’s pretty much the soundtrack to my life. While listening through it I was struck by two things. Firstly the memories they stir up are mostly associated with women (those loved and lost) or cars (usually breaking down in the middle of nowhere). And secondly, the most memorable parts of my life are inevitably the ones with the strongest emotions – the negative ones. So when I listen to those sad songs they remind me of times when I was down, which then reminds me of the happy times I was looking back on at the time. And that cheers me up.

My wife on the other hand listens to melancholy music and after a short time wants to burst into tears, probably dwelling on the negatives. Perhaps it’s a glass half full thing. Or maybe it’s just be a man / woman thing. I’m sure someone’ll have written a song or two about that…

Oh, if you want to hear the sort of depressing mix tapes I put together, here’s a Spotify playlist that gives you the idea. Enjoy!

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Creator of John's Background Switcher. Scotsman, footballer, photographer, dog owner, risk taker, heart breaker, nice guy. Some of those are lies.

8 Comments Join the Conversation

  1. I don’t have Spotify, so haven’t been able to check the full list, but I can’t help feeling that the misery guts of Manchester are criminally under-represented here! Where’s the Joy Division and The Smiths or Morrissey?


    • Oh don’t worry, I’m a fan of all 3, I just picked some random albums that were highly played – I could have gone on and on with the depressing selections!


  2. No worries, I believe this is an evidence that you are perfectly normal.

    I read years ago an article in some heavy-duty medical review ending probably in “-ology Letters” or something that people who enjoy or at least are neutral when reading obituaries are mentally healthy. Good to know – I always enjoyed reading them on a plane 🙂


    • I’m normal? Excellent! And I don’t quite stretch to reading obituaries, but that’ll give me something to do if I’ve read the rest of the paper and am stuck on a plane / train / dentist waiting room!


  3. Happy to see that I’m not the only one. My wife absolutely hates my old Cure album’s: Faith, Seventeen Seconds, Pornography and Three Imaginary Boys. The same with Joy Division, Sisters of Mercy, Bauhaus and Cocteau Twins. I’m 45 and the 80’s dark and depressing new wave genre continues to fill my heart with nostalgia. I love nostalgia, it’s both a feeling of sadness and joy at the same time that we can’t really share with others. Lou Reed once said: “I don’t like nostalgia, unless it’s mine.” Thanks for sharing this with us.


  4. I’ve wondered for a long time why I find so-called ‘depressing’ music so cheering. During lockdown Radiohead, Portishead and The Smiths have really kept me going. It’s not so much the lyrics with Radiohead as I can’t decipher the words quite a bit of the time; it’s Thom Yorke’s voice and the overall sound. They never fail to make me feel more buoyant.
    I’ve always enjoyed male vocalists with high-pitched, whiny voices. I bought Neil Young’s ‘After the Goldrush’ at 17 and have never looked back.
    The reverse side is that upbeat, poppy music makes me feel suicidal which can make for some bickering with my husband over radio station choices.


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