Why heartbreak and music go hand in hand
I may not be one of the world’s most successful pop stars, the owner of three adorable cats, or the close friend of multiple Victoria’s Secret Angels, but Taylor Swift and I do share one similarity: We both had our hearts absolutely pummeled at 15.
If her 2009 country-pop hit is to be believed, Swift’s first heartbreak was inflicted by a boy on the football team who didn’t see their high school romance stretching beyond freshman year. Mine was a little more anti-climactic; I simply had a crippling crush on a floppy-haired fella in my math class who most definitely did not like me back.
And boy did it hurt.
Confusion fought with misery and hopelessness for space in my heart, and humiliation was always there to deal a few particularly painful kicks. To make matters worse, I felt completely isolated in my agony. What did my friends know about having their hearts ripped from their rib cages? They say time heals all wounds, but I couldn’t wait for the cure; I needed a painkiller. So I turned to music.
Through my first heartbreak, and all the ones that have followed, carefully curated playlists have been a constant source of solace and inspiration. The croaky vocals and listless guitars on Blur’s “No Distance Left To Run” have helped me feel a little less alone in my despair, while Christina Aguilera’s sufficiently punchy “Fighter” has provided the fuel for every (short-lived) post-breakup gym session.
And it seems the gravitational pull towards music when heartbreak hits is almost as universal as heartbreak itself.
Spotify’s “Broken Heart” playlist—which features a slew of songs suited for all stages of sorrow, from the inconsolable “Mercy” by Shawn Mendes to Ariana Grande’s graceful “thank u, next”–boasts more than 2.5 million followers.
But why exactly do music and heartbreak go together better than you and your ex ever did?
Music therapist Dr. Hilary Moss may have the answer. “Music stirs the emotions,” she says. “It connects without language to our feelings. For example, music at a funeral is often the part where people cry, and when we hear the song later, it reminds us strongly of the person who died.”
This might explain why we’re prone to wailing along like Bridget Jones to power ballad “All By Myself” when our hearts have been stamped on. Embarrassing? Sure. But as unhealthy as the pint of Cherry Garcia-flavored Ben and Jerry’s we’re sobbing into? Perhaps not.
According to psychotherapist and relationships counsellor Lisa O’Hara, indulging in all the feels stirred by sad songs can actually be a helpful exercise. “Music can evoke memories and actually help us connect in with the body experience of the loss and allow us to disgorge it through tears if we’re that kind of a coper,” Lisa says. “Some people say after a good cry, they feel great!”
However, O’Hara notes this behavior isn’t helpful to everyone experiencing heartbreak.
“It might be quite counter-productive for somebody who’s much more in the cognitive, active styling of coping,” she explains. So if you’re someone who doesn’t intuitively find it helpful to show emotion or talk about your feelings, Adele’s “Someone Like You” might not be your best breakup buddy. Instead, you might find yourself pulled towards empowering, independence anthems like Elton John’s “I’m Still Standing” or “Survivor” by Destiny’s Child.
“Music stimulates our pulse, our blood flow, and therefore it conjures our sense of aliveness and hope,” explains psychotherapist Mark O’Connell. “For example, if you were to read the lyrics to Gloria Gaynor’s ‘I Will Survive’ after a breakup, they might help you to organize your thoughts and your personal narrative on an intellectual level. On the other hand, if you were to listen to the song—performed by Ms. Gaynor with fierce passion and spirit—you wouldn’t just think your way out of sorrow, but you’d also feel vibrations throughout your whole being and begin to dream of more possibilities for yourself than to simply suffer alone.”
While music is certainly there for us no matter how we handle the emotions initially accompanying heartbreak, it can also help us to properly understand and process the past—a vital step in moving forward.
Netflix rom-com Someone Great expertly explores this idea. Throughout the film, tracks like Vampire Weekend’s “Mansard Roof” trigger flashbacks for freshly dumped music journalist Jenny Young (Gina Rodriguez), prompting her to realize and accept the rise and fall of her recent relationship.
This phenomenon is far from uncommon; Dr. Krystine Batcho, a psychologist and professor at Le Moyne College, tells me that music is considered “one of the most powerful” triggers of nostalgia. Songs with lyrics about the passing of time or the shaping of our identities are known to be nostalgic, though others can have a personal reason for inciting a bittersweet longing for the past.
“Some music is nostalgic not because of itself, but because it was associated with something in your life—so if it was the theme of your high school prom or your wedding song,” she elaborates. Although flashbacks might sting a little in the short-term, Dr. Batcho assures me they aren’t always bad news.
“Nostalgia correlates with pro-social emotions such as forgiveness and compassion. It also correlates with problem solving abilities and counteracts loneliness,” says Dr. Batcho. “If you’re nostalgic, you can bring back memories of good, healthy loving relationships and that gives you the promise and the hope that just because this relationship failed, it doesn’t mean that all your relationships in the future will.”
Like a true friend, music is there for us through the good times and the bad. Not only does it wipe away our tears with self-esteem restoring lyrics and a euphoric chorus, but it also provides the soundtrack to the post-heartbreak chapters of our lives.
“Mourning is the word used to describe the period following a loss,” Lisa O’Hara says. “Part of the mourning can be, for some people, listening to [the same song] over and over again. But if you’re working your way through the loss honestly, you’ll notice that after a while you’re naturally starting to not want to listen to it so much. You might be starting to choose other kinds of music, and that can be a cue to yourself that you’re moving along in the phase of mourning.”
She explains that true healing involves repositioning your ex from the center of your life to “somewhere closer to the periphery,” a process that inevitably involves creating experiences without them.
And who knows? Maybe these experiences will also have music at their core. Maybe you’ll spend hours trying to learn a new-release earworm on guitar, or shout along to your favorite band’s new album as it plays on repeat, or dance with sweat-soaked strangers at the gig of the summer. Maybe, like our four favorite Swedes from Abba, you’ll emerge on the other side of heartbreak and say thank you for the music.