“Bittersweetness is the hidden source of our moon shots, masterpieces, and loves stories.” ~Susan Cain
In her early twenties, author Susan Cain began wondering why she found sad music strangely uplifting. From Leonard Cohen to Albinoni’s Adagio, mournful songs seemed to open her heart and inspire a sense of connectedness.
She spent the next two decades exploring how humans have turned sorrow into creativity, transcendence, and love.
Her new book, Bittersweet: How Sorry and Longing Makes Us Whole, examines not just why we experience the state of yearning, but how transforming our heartaches can help us turn toward each other and bring meaning.
Do you have the bittersweet temperament? Cain offers a research-based quiz to see where you fall on the spectrum. Here are a few of the questions:
-Do you tear up easily at touching TV commercials?
-Are you especially moved by old photographs?
-Do you react intensely to music, art, or nature?
-Do you feel elevated by sad music?
-Do you seek out beauty in your everyday life?
My high score put me as a “true connoisseur of the place where light and dark meet.” Not surprising, at all. I was the kid who cried at Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” theme.
Bittersweet is a word we often toss around. Cain’s precise definition really resonates with me.
A tendency to states of longing, poignancy, and sorrow: an acute awareness of passing time; and a curiously piercing joy at the beauty of the world. The recognition that light and dark, birth and death—bitter and sweet—are forever paired.
Cain sees our pull toward sad music as intertwined with the sweet parts of life. It expresses our longing for a more beautiful and perfect world. She describes Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” as an expression of the yearning for transcendent love.
This active state of yearning, particularly for the unattainable, which she names “the great ache“, has always been part of our shared humanity. This universal longing is conjured into some of the world’s most beautiful music.
Our oldest problem is the pain of separation; our deepest dream is the desire for reunion.
The author cites research that demonstrates how melancholy melodies help modulate our emotions and physiology. Kind of like having a good cry. Some of us enjoy this emotional arousal and catharsis.
She quotes a musicologist from the 19th century who describes the key of C minor as the “longing of the lovesick soul“.
Sad music can elicit “exalted states of communion and awe.” The song lyrics, as well, can make us feel less alone, as if someone else out there understands our pain. This music can offer space to reflect upon and process sad events.
Paradoxically, research shows that, for some, listening to sad music can mend a broken heart.
Cain explores other related questions in this book:
Why do we long for the perfect? How should we cope with lost love? How can we live and work authentically in a “tyranny of positivity”? How should we live, knowing that we and everyone we love will die?
Paul Klee, “Strong Dream”, 1929
Bittersweet is a fascinating mixture of memoir, philosophy, psychology, and storytelling.
Upbeat music makes us want to dance around the kitchen and invite friends to dinner. Sad music makes us want to touch the sky.
Do you find listening to melancholy music healing? Here’s one of my favorites.
What’s on your sad song list?