Taylor Swift: Psychologists explain why we love breakup songs

Perhaps never before have so many been so eager for something so steeped in heartbreak.

Taylor Swift‘s legions of devotees have eagerly anticipated her new album, “The Tortured Poets Department,” in hopes of gaining insight into her notoriously private six-year relationship with actor Joe Alwyn — particularly her perspective on its demise.

Swift delivers. In a track titled “Fresh Out the Slammer,” the 14-time Grammy Award winner sings of spending “Years of labor, locks and ceilings / In the shade of how he was feeling.” Another song called “So Long London” has her recounting that “I stopped CPR, after all it’s no use / Thе spirit was gone, we would never come to.”

“Songwriting is something that, like, actually gets me through my life, and I’ve never had an album where I needed songwriting more than I needed it on ‘Tortured Poets,’” Swift confessed to an audience in Melbourne, Australia, when her Eras tour played there in February.

Embracing a breakup album may seem like a macabre thing to do. But psychologists and cognitive scientists say songs about relationships gone bad actually can do listeners a lot of good.

“When people have a romantic breakup, they feel very alone in their experience,” said David Sbarra, a professor of psychology at the University of Arizona who studies how marital separation and divorce affect health. “They feel very isolated and think that the unique individual circumstances that characterized their breakup are particularly terrible.”

A breakup song can change that, said Sbarra, who conducted a deep dive into the emotional authenticity of Olivia Rodrigo‘s lyrics about a doomed relationship on her debut album “Sour.”

“Songs play a powerful role in normalizing our experience, in making us feel that we are not this weird, unusual, distorted kind of person,” he said.

Indeed, almost everyone who has reached their late teens has lived through the demise of a romantic relationship and endured the gamut of emotions that accompany it.

“The songs function to affirm their emotions, validate them, remind the listener they are not alone,” said Bill Thompson, a psychologist at Bond University in Queensland, Australia, who studies why music is important to people. “The emotions associated with breaking up are universal. They are a natural part of being human — even if they are also painful.”

Thompson said the concept of a love song — and by extension, a breakup song — may be written into our genes. Birds are known to serenade potential mates, while mice, humpback whales and other species use vocalizations to attract their partners.

“So among our ancestors, music might have played a role in mate selection and courtship,” he said. “It’s possible the prevalence of songs about love and courtship is a remnant of this ancestral function.”

The Sumerians of Mesopotamia devised a love song by around 2000 BCE, and scholars of Ancient Egypt have found love songs inscribed into pottery and written on sheets of papyrus. But it’s not clear when the first breakup song arose.

Why breakup songs caught on is less of a mystery, experts said.

“Breakups certainly inspire a rich broth of emotions,” said Arianna Galligher, a licensed clinical social worker and director of the Stress, Trauma and Resilience program at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. “For a lot of people, listening to music helps them sort through their own emotional experience.”

Sometimes a breakup song can be cathartic. Here, Taylor Swift shows her strength during a performance at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood in August 2023.

(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Sadness is often the primary emotion in a breakup song. But it’s certainly not the only one.

The 10-minute version of Swift’s “All Too Well” evokes a range of strong feelings, including “sadness at the end of the relationship, nostalgia about the past romance, regret that the relationship failed, anger at being dumped, resentment that the boyfriend moved on to other young women, scorn at his unfaithfulness, and fear of being hurt again,” Paul Thagard, a philosopher and cognitive scientist at the University of Waterloo, writes in his forthcoming book “Dreams, Jokes, and Songs.”

“I think it is a fabulous song,” Thagard said in an interview. “The reason it’s such a fabulous song is that it manages to convey a lot of different emotions.”

There’s no rule that says the emotions in a breakup song have to be negative. If a relationship was a poor fit — or even toxic — it’s appropriate to celebrate when it comes to an end, Galligher said.

Likewise, a breakup song suffused with sadness can resonate with a listener in a rock-solid relationship who is coping with another kind of loss.

“Sadness is not exclusive to breakups,” Galligher said. “Sometimes it can be helpful to listen to a song that is ostensibly about a breakup, but it helps you tap into something inside of you that knows sadness.”

She recalled a time that Adele’s “Someone Like You” came on the radio as she was driving to a memorial service.

“I was in a perfectly functional relationship, very happily coupled, and I found myself tapping into the song’s sadness and grief related to the loss of my friend,” she said. “It was really helpful to be able to access those emotions.”

When a breakup is fresh and the pain is raw, a song can serve as “a virtual empathetic friend” by affirming and validating a listener’s emotions, helping them process their feelings, and reminding them they’re not alone, Thompson said.

“The advantage is that you won’t get unwanted advice,” he said. “Music is just there for you and supportive.”

Thagard agreed: “There’s no judgment coming from a song.” (Unless you’re one of the unlucky men who has broken Swift’s heart.)

In addition, binging on breakup songs can be part of “a habituation process” that reduces the intensity of feelings associated with a romantic split, Sbarra said. Some people may find that necessary before they’re ready to talk about their breakup with another person.

“Sometimes folks need to spend a little time reflecting on their own feelings,” Galligher said. “Having a little bit of solitude to be introspective can be really beneficial, and then you seek the connection with others.”

Yet for all that breakup songs have to offer, it’s still possible to have too much of a good thing. Studies have found that listening to sad music can make sad people feel even sadder by prompting them them to dwell on their sadness.

“You do have to take your temperature about whether this is ultimately helping you or hurting you,” Sbarra said.

That said, listening to breakup songs can be a healthy way of distancing oneself from a painful event.

“It’s not you,” he said. “It’s Taylor Swift.”