Harmony* was drinking red wine on a boat the first time she heard Adele’s new album, 30. She and her friend were talking about love — or, rather, Harmony was venting about her very recent ex, who she’d begun seeing during the height of the pandemic. What had started as a dreamy, intoxicating, and relatively carefree affair had spiraled into a toxic, stressful nightmare. And when she tried to talk to him about their problems — including his habit of flirting, blatantly, with other women — he’d deflected, disrespected, and even gaslit her. Gutted, Harmony (whose name has been changed) had ended things. And though two weeks had passed between the breakup and November 19, when she and her friend met up on the boat, she was still processing.
Even before she started opening up about her romantic woes, Harmony’s friend had suggested that the new Adele album would make the perfect background music for their catch-up. Harmony only half-listened to most of it as they chatted, until the song “Woman Like Me” came on. The chorus of the poignant ballad — about knowing what you deserve, and the torturous nature of dealing with a partner who isn’t meeting that standard — immediately grabbed her. “It talks about complacency being the worst trait to have, and says that consistency is the gift you give for free,” the 33-year-old tells Refinery29. “That seriously hit me.”
When Harmony got home, she played the song over and over again while cleaning her apartment. “I’m a Capricorn, so it’s my nature to listen to songs incessantly on repeat,” she says. As she Swiffered and scrubbed the dishes, the song continued to hit her differently on each play. “The more you listen, the more you can tell that Adele wanted to be lost in this relationship, but not this way,” she says. “For me, the moral of the story is she’s not going to tolerate a complacent person who doesn’t fully honor her and is going to move on. I needed to hear that, and I think I found that song at the exact right moment in time.”
If Harmony had to go through a breakup, she’s not really mad it was during so-called “Sad Girl Autumn” — the perhaps inevitable aftermath of the ill-fated “Hot Girl Summer.” Fall 2021 has been punctuated by (and, perhaps, informed by) a veritable soundtrack of sadness: “The Only Heartbreaker” from Mitski, Adele’s 30, and Taylor Swift’s re-recorded version of Red. The songs tugged at our heartstrings, begging us to walk around moodily while listening, and relistening, and reliving our most recent, or our most painful, breakups.
For people like Harmony, who were going through a split this fall, the Sad Girl Autumn chart-toppers felt like fate, or a serendipitous gift. Harmony has continued to play “Woman Like Me” constantly since it came out, occasionally mixing in Solange’s “T.O.N.Y.” She says the songs supported her through her breakup and helped her make sense of some of the confusing emotions the split had brought up.
Indeed, music has the power to shift people’s emotions, sometimes helping them cope with a breakup and other times potentially spurring them to consider initiating one, says Amy Morin, a licensed social worker who, as the editor-in-chief of Verywell Mind, helped launch a survey about music and mental health. “[Music] definitely has the ability to change the way we think and feel,” she explains. “For a lot of people, it stirs up emotions. It might remind them, ‘Hey, it’s not okay for myself to be treated like this.’ Or, ‘I can do better.’ I think it could empower people to create change in their life. In some cases, that may involve changing the relationship or making peace with ending it.”
A 2019 study of more than 2,500 people in China and the U.S. found that, across cultures, different music can evoke different emotions: sadness, anger, nostalgia, excitement, or fear. And it’s not just about lyrics. “The current thinking is that the acoustic features of music resemble how we communicate emotion with our voice,” says Dacher Keltner, PhD, a professor of psychology at UC Berkeley and one of the study’s authors. Sad songs sound, well, sad, so they activate melancholic memories. “Your brain is saying, 'That song is representing sadness, and I’m feeling it, but I’m feeling it in this aesthetic, musical context.’ This makes it a different kind of emotion than your own actual sadness,’” Dr. Keltner says. Listening to sad music, then, lets us be objective about our own sadness. It’s like we’re on the outside of our own situation, peeping in through a bay window.
In that way, even sad songs can have positive effects. In fact, many people leaned on music more than ever during the pandemic, Morin says: We couldn’t have coffee with a friend, but... we could turn on the radio and feel a little bit less alone.”
While it can be cathartic to listen to sad songs that allow you to sit with the emotions you’re having, some experts argue that staying in those feelings for too long can do more harm than good. Dr. Keltner says that more research is needed before we can say for sure whether listening to sorrowful music too much can ultimately make you sadder. But even so, Morin urges people to check in with themselves periodically during a marathon-listening session. “If you’re feeling sad and this music is making you feel even sadder, it’s important to take a moment to be present and analyze how that sadness is serving you, if at all,” she says.
Morin also has concerns about the glamorization of sadness. The TikTok trends that have cropped up around Adele’s and Swift’s heart-maiming albums are often light-hearted, and aim to tap into the universal experience of getting in your feels over a somber playlist — think, people scream-singing in the shower to Taylor’s version of old classics. But Morin says it’s important to also get across the message that “you don’t have to stay stuck” in the so-sad-it-hurts phase of a breakup or other low period.
Anthony*, for example, says he’s found listening to the music of Sad Girl Autumn to be helpful, but only to a point. In October, he ended things with the "amazing person" he’d been seeing for about three months. He still sometimes finds solace in listening to tear-jerkers from Adele and Mary J. Blige while lying by his hamper on his carpeted bedroom floor. But although this is cathartic for him, he also knows that “Adele is not a professional therapist."
“There’s still work I need to do,” Anthony (who asked to be identified by his middle name) tells Refinery29. “At the end of the day, I need to be working on myself to make sure I can bring good energy in order to attract quality guys.”
Lately, Anthony has also started to crave music that he knows will put him in a “better headspace,” such as “I Knew I Loved You” by Savage Garden. Harmony, too, says that — even though she suspects she still has another week of listening to “Woman Like Me” on repeat in her — she wants to start switching up her repertoire to include more upbeat music, such as “Savage” by Megan Thee Stallion. “Sometimes you want to listen to music that makes you feel dark and cozy and makes you want to cuddle up in your snuggie,” she says. “But you need a good balance of being alone and dwelling in your thoughts and music that makes you feel better and confident — music to be used as a vehicle to know your worth.”
So while sad songs helped Harmony and Anthony make sense of their breakups, they’re relying on happier tunes as they move into the next stage — reclaiming their confidence. As Dr. Keltner points out, there are plenty of things you can do to “shift towards a happier state, like seeing a film or getting out with your friends.” Music is just one tool we have, but it’s a powerful one. “There are many reasons we choose music, and that speaks to its richness,” Dr. Keltner says.
Music can even mark the passage of time. Someday in the future, “Woman Like Me” might come up on a random Spotify playlist Harmony is listening to and instantly transport her back to how she felt in this moment — and, hopefully, show her how far she’s come. “Music,” she says. “I don’t know how you could go through a breakup without it.”