Spoiler alert– This may make you cry. I would advise against reading if you are still under the age of 35, your middle name is ‘merry’, or your Santa Claus is coming. 

It’s the time of year again when I yearn for the most melancholy music I can find. As I’m writing this, I’m listening to some achingly beautiful choral music that seems to be the perfect playground to some sadness deep within that I didn’t even know existed and I certainly have no words for. I can sense that it is truly my sadness that is surfacing, not just borrowed emotion from the music I am listening to, but I cannot tell you from where it originates.  

This mood certainly seems somewhat incongruous with the emotional expectations of the season. Isn’t this supposed to be a season of joy, happiness and fulfillment? Our greetings at this time of year certainly reveal our emotional agenda – Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, Happy Hanukkah, Happy New Year. However, it’s likely that we wouldn’t be wishing this for each other unless the opposite was more likely to be the case … and for good reason it would seem. 

We have come to associate this season with warm family connection, a generosity of spirit, magic and awe, feasting and fulfillment. Our hopes and expectations automatically highlight any lack there may be. With years, these losses accumulate. Warm childhood memories of celebration and connectedness are not easily re-enacted and when they are, the magic is often missing. The empty spaces on our attachment dance cards become more obvious when the dancing is supposed to happen. Early childhood lacks and losses tend to become more obvious with time, not less. Winter itself becomes symbolic of lack – lack of warmth, lack of thriving, lack of life itself. The holes in our attachment world are never more revealed than when fullness is the hope and expectation. For these reasons alone, there would need to be space for sadness in our life during this ‘festive’ time. 

But there is another perhaps even more significant reason for sadness to be invited into our emotional landscape at this time of year. Before I elaborate, let me give a bit of context.

My most recent project has been developing a series of seminars for the staff of Sarah McLachlan’s School of Music for troubled kids. I am having the time of my life joining the dots on the story of music and emotion. Although there is a growing body of research on this topic, most of it is uninformed by the newest insights on attachment, emotion, and especially play. Hence my excitement to be in a place of discovery – among the first it seems to be looking through these lenses. 

One of the insights I come to this study of music with is the idea that emotion is meant to take care of us, with sadness playing a pivotal role in our adaptation to life. Sadness is undoubtedly one of the most difficult, if not THE most difficult, of all human emotions – to experience as well as to express. A second foundational insight is the idea that play is meant to take care of emotion – helping emotion move, giving safe expression to emotion, and especially helping emotion to be felt. Now add to this a realization that music is the first language of emotion as well as the primordial and preeminent playground of emotion. This trilogy of understandings paves the way for a plethora of realizations and discoveries. 

So why would we need sad music to begin our festive season? The answer is that with age, it becomes increasingly difficult for many of us to find the merriment in it all, to preserve the awe when the magic is gone, to be happy when tragedy surrounds us, to be upbeat in the midst of keen disillusionment and disappointment. Paradoxically, this is where sadness comes in. 

One of the secret powers of sadness is its ability to spring us back into joy and happiness – like letting oneself go downhill on a ski-slope in preparation for making it sufficiently uphill to where you get on the ski-lift. Getting uphill emotionally can become increasingly challenging for some of us and we need all the downhill momentum we can muster to give us the boost we need. 

Healthy emotional equilibrium is anything but equanimity. It involves riding the sine wave through the down turn in order to experience the subsequent lightening of mood. In fact, emotional bounce back becomes less and less possible without the prerequisite descent into sadness and melancholy. In other words, we must allow ourselves an immersion into sadness to preserve the ability to reach the happiness that we so desire. As paradoxical as it may seem, when we lose our emotional sparkle, it is melancholy that holds the answer to elevating our mood. 

The problem with sadness is that it can be hidden in the deeper recesses of our heart without us even being aware of it. If sadness isn’t expressed in a timely manner, we tend to lose the memories and words that can give us a handle to our emotions. Therefore, it becomes less and less accessible in a usable form.

In other words, sadness does not have a long shelf-life. Emotions serve us best when fresh, when felt, when mixed and when reflected upon. Sadness can sour when past its best-before date. Stale sadness can suck the life out of our spirits, shrivel up our generosity, turn us into self-interested narcissists, drag us down, and even ironically fuel a desperate pursuit of happiness. All this gives sadness a bad name. The problem is not with the sadness however, but with the sadness that has become stale, stuck and sour. 

Once we’ve lost a handle to our sadness, it is also more difficult to make room for these feelings. Sadness rarely feels justified, especially when we consider the suffering of others. But once sadness has been orphaned from the experienced futilities that gave rise to it, it becomes even more difficult to embrace, at least for those of us who must have a reason to feel.  

So how are we to find this stale sadness, give it the expression it yearns for, help cleanse our heart of the impediments to healthy emotional circulation? 

That is where music comes into play. 

The right music is profoundly gifted at collecting any sadness that has been neglected or disconnected from its memories and its words. All indications are that music, of all the arts, holds the most promise for finding the orphaned sadness that needs to be released, giving it safe expression, and spring-loading it to, ultimately, elevate our spirits.

So bring on the winter songs in minor keys, the tragic stories ensorcelled by musical scores, the resonant cellos that tug at the heart strings, the unresolved tonal patterns that resist resolution until you almost can’t stand it anymore. This kind of music seems to transport sadness to an emotional heaven that seems undaunted by the ever-present futilities of life. 

Most academic treatments of music can’t make sense of its affinity for sadness because sadness is synonymous with suffering: why would so much music seem to invite a state that is considered aversive? What these studies miss is that music, when in the play mode, invites our emotions to come out to play. True play is both engaging and containing, thus rendering the sadness not only bearable but even somewhat enticing. 

Plato – the first play theorist ever – said it best: music brings a charm to sadness.I feel that truth. Like sugar makes the medicine go down. Adding a dose of playfulness and distancing it from reality is what does the trick. And once music carries the sadness and moves toward resolution, it somehow seems that the sadness will end when the music does. 

To reiterate, sadness is pivotal to emotional health and music seems most suited to reach into the deepest recesses of our heart and coax this reticent inhibited sentiment out to play. Once the sadness is scored in melancholy tones over time, the sugar-coated suffering becomes almost irresistible – like sirens to sorrow. Sometimes I find myself surfing Spotify for just one more sad song before turning off the lights. Before I started studying about the interplay of music and emotion, I thought this to be an eccentric trait of mine. Now I see it much differently – as simply one manifestation of a healthy universal need to bring sadness into play. 

I must confess that I don’t give nearly enough playtime for sadness in my everyday life throughout the year, to fuel the spontaneous bounce-back into the happiness that would more suit the season. Perhaps that is why my stores of sadness are so full by the beginning of December. I clearly need to shed a few pounds of sadness to prepare for the anticipated feasts of merriment just ahead.  

So … if you are on the other side of mid-life, merry is not your permanent state of being, and Santa Claus’s existence is in doubt …  it may be high time for some sad music. 

‘Tis the season for sad music as it promises to be our best hope for delivering a most Merry Christmas, a truly Happy Hanukah, a restorative Happy Holiday, and even a Happy New Year. Try explaining that to your friends. Actually, don’t even try unless it makes some sense to you first. 

To riff off of Plato for the valediction …  

May music bring charm to your sadness, 

Dr. Eeyore (aka, Gordon Neufeld, PhD) 

© 2024 The Neufeld Institute