Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

MusicFebruary 14, 2021

The fine art of curating a breakup playlist

Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

Music has long been used as a balm to soothe the pain of a broken heart, but, as Sherry Zhang explains, not just any old soundtrack will do.

Valentine’s Day is the time for it. Other than the weeks leading up to Christmas, no other time spurs on the “it’s not you, it’s me” convo faster. At least that’s what British journalist and graphic designer David McCandless found after analysing 10,000 Facebook statuses including the term “breakup”. 

At The Spinoff we like to help you prepare for the worst, so we’ve investigated how to curate the perfect soundtrack to get through heartbreak season. 

Through the scientifically robust method of cornering colleagues and harassing friends on social media, I’ve captured the key elements of a breakup playlist.

Though the sample pool is skewed to the millennial/gen z cohort, I’m confident there are no wildly offensive conclusions. Feel free to leave a scathing comment if so. 

Why people listen to sad music is the focus of the research of Dr Sandra Garrido, a music psychologist from the University of Western Sydney.

“People will be attracted to breakup songs of their era,” she says. “Most people develop a stronger emotional connection to music in their teens and 20s. We encode the memories, and people like to listen to music from that era for their whole life.” 

So when I go through my third divorce at age 40, I’ll still be screaming to Lorde’s Melodrama, James Blake and ‘Cruel’ by Dane Rumble? Huh, that’s kind of comforting. 

Wallowing, reflecting or in need of distraction? 

In Garrido’s research, only 6% of participants chose music that gave them hope and cheered them up. As expected, most of us are sad sacks after a breakup. 

“Our strongest instinct in cases of heartbreak is to seek out music that reminds us of our beloved or the times we spent with them. That allows us an outlet for our emotions,” she says. 

Wallowers tend to select songs with a focus on past events. “In those early stages in the romance, you get a lot of feel-good hormones in the brain. It’s a bit like an addiction. But when you break up with them, that source of the rush is gone.

“Listening to music that reminds you of that person can fill that need a little.”

Garrido clarifies that wallowing is natural – it’s a good way to ease yourself off the drug of love. “But it can also be very easy to get addicted to that kind of music, because it’s the only way to feel close. People can get stuck in it.” 

Olly*, a 21-year-old guy I met at 95bFM who really enjoys sad music, swears he’s not an unhappy person –  though he admits his friends regularly send him memes from beam_me_up_softboi, an Instagram page poking fun at slightly pretentious, very indie, floppy-haired boys. 

I mean fuck toxic masculinity, get in touch with your emotions! Olly explains his reasoning. “It’s good to have your feelings validated by a song you’re listening to. I also think the best sad songs have happy jangly instrumentals. The boppiest tune, but the lyrics are cathartic. So you can expunge all those feelings.” 

‘Incredibly miserable’: The Smiths (Photo: PYMCA/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Garrido has also picked up the importance of lyrics. “Research shows that when people aren’t upset, they might focus on the melody or beat. But when they feel a bit down, they tend to select lyrics they connect to.” 

One of Olly’s favourite breakup songs is ‘I Know It’s Over’ by The Smiths. “It’s incredibly miserable. The refrain, Oh mother, I can feel the soil falling over my head. It’s kind of funny how ham-fisted it is.” 

On the other hand, reflectors are much more future-focused. They differ from wallowers in the content of their thoughts, says Garrido. 

“Some people say the whole biological reason negative emotions exist is to help us process our emotion,” she says. “To use strategies such as cognitive reframing to find more positive ways of looking at circumstances and learn from our experiences.” 

That’s also why Olly likes sad songs. “If there is no sadness there is no happiness – it’s all about perspective,” he says. “I like happy songs too but not within the scope of this. It provides an opportunity to reflect and mirror your feelings to a piece of art as part of the healing process.” 

But people are complex, and you might bounce from wallowing to reflecting to distracting yourself at various different points of the process.  

Clarity often comes at the end. A “Recovered me wanting to reflect” playlist, as Frances* puts it. She preferred having a separate playlist for each stage of grief, all the way from the angsty build-up, to rage, to finally moving on. It looked rough though: ‘Falling’ by Harry Styles and Angie McMahon in the same list? Oh dear. 

Spinoff staff writer Josie Adams prefers a two-pronged approach: a healthy mix of wallowers and mood-boosters. “It can heal you in a matter of days,” she promises. As an example: going from ‘You (ha ha ha)’ by Charli XCX to ‘Club Tropicana’ by Wham!

You, you lied, ha ha ha I was right

All alone, good job,

Good job, you fucked it up

followed by

Fun and sunshine, there’s enough for everyone

All that’s missing is the sea

But don’t worry, you can suntan

Garrido is part of the 6% who don’t like to wallow. “I’m more of a let’s-move-on-with-life type. So I don’t find Adele helpful.” 

She’s a Distractor, like Tai* who is on a mission to avoid Sam Smith and XXXTentacion. “If someone starts playing those artists around me, I’ll get up and leave.” 

“All the songs on my breakup playlist are ‘feel good’ type songs, from Kanye West’s ‘Power’ to Kelly Clarkson’s ‘Stronger’. Breakups are shit; they make you cry. My logic is that I don’t want to be sadder than I already am.”

For Beth*, meanwhile, it’s all about feeling HOT again. “If you’ve been broken up with, you naturally start wondering if you aren’t good enough. And even though breakups aren’t really about attractiveness, it’s still a blow.” 

The kinds of tunes she goes for depends on the nature of the breakup and whether or not she was the instigator. But she also admits she’s an Aries, a notoriously fiery fire sign. “I was angry and confused,” she says about a recent playlist. “So I wanted some fuck you songs in there. It’s also easier to move on if you cultivate a little resentment.” 

A good title 

Take it from me, don’t name your playlist Ow, Ow!, bigger ow! or sad boi hrs. If your friends can see what you’re listening to, cue an embarrassing onslaught of concerned messages. Especially as for me, the breakup playlist often doubles as my writing playlist or pre-show playlist. Gotta access emotions somehow, right? 

Then again, if you want to make a performance of it, like Spinoff video creator Janaye Henry, go hard with a title like “I’m sorry but what the fuck?”, one she made after seeing her ex listening to a playlist with a new partner’s initials in the title.  

“There’s always a consideration of the title of the song,” she adds. “The breakup playlist is half myself, and the other half for the image it portrays.

“I always want to give off the impression that I’m fine. I have a sad song playlist, but there’s no way a sad song is going in the breakup playlist. My ex is not going to know they hurt me at all.” 

Titles can also double as a goal. Speed is an important factor for Adams: “Don’t cry longer than this” was made in 2014 to deal with three breakups. At two hours and 21 minutes, that’s pretty time-efficient. Olly’s wallow playlist, on the other hand, is capped at five hours.  

But if you’d rather have privacy to wallow/reflect/distract yourself, using other languages or a mix of emojis is a common method employed. Or burn it onto a walkman/CD and go off grid. Just let your friends know you’re OK, just processing!

Sad man listening to music
He’s processing (Photo: Getty Images)

Listening style

I’m not ashamed to say my breakup process sometimes includes putting one song on repeat and listening to it to death for a week. 

On Melancholy Hill by Gorillaz, my ex’s favourite song? Endless stream till I can’t even understand the words any more. And once that’s done, I’m a new person. Ready to function again. Though it does mean some songs become permanently banned from my brain!

But maybe like Olly, you’re less manic in your listening style, and prefer to experience breakup albums. “It’s already done the work for you. It’s curated to a particular feeling. It’s more concentrated wallowing, and the lyrical thread is more consistent.” 

Then there are listeners like Spinoff intern Charlotte Muru-Lanning, who curate a trip down memory lane. “My ex and I stayed up all night listening and crying to one of the playlists on our last night together. We ordered it like a journey from start to end of the relationship.”

I get it. While I’m not at that level of curation, or on such good terms with an ex, I’ve got playlists spanning back to my first relationship at 15 years old. And because I used to be a on-and-off little shit, there’s one for each tragic moment of heartbreak. A mix of songs pulled from sweet playlists they’ve made for me, “our songs”, empowering bops and tearjearkers.

Garrido concludes that whether we listen to love-celebrating music or love-lamenting music depends on gender, personality and coping style. And for most, sad breakup songs are part of a healthy psychological process for working through the pain. 

“However, studies suggest that a highly past-orientated or emotion-focused approach to coping with heartbreak tends to be associated with negative mood outcomes in some people. 

“The brain systems that are activated when in love provide powerful incentives to pursue love with energy and without regard to risk.” 

Garrido quotes a 2013 study in France that found women were more likely to accept flirty advances from an unknown male carrying a guitar case. “It seems that musical ability does increase the chances of reproductive success even in humans in the 21st century.” 

So once you’ve healed that achy-breaky heart, get back out there. Maybe even put all that pain into a Grammy award-winning album. Taylor Swift? Bob Dylan? Even our local heartbreak heroes Marlon Williams and Lorde aren’t doing so bad. 

* some names changed because exes are awkward.

This story was made possible thanks to the generous support of our members. If you value what we do and want to help us do more – tautoko mai, donate today.

Mad Chapman, Editor
Aotearoa continues to adapt to a new reality and The Spinoff is right there, sorting fact from fiction to bring you the latest updates and biggest stories. Help us continue this coverage, and so much more, by supporting The Spinoff Members.Madeleine Chapman, EditorJoin Members

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