Skip to main content

Michael Stipe tells the people of Switzerland that it's okay, Everybody Hurts.


"Sad songs say so much,/ if someone else is suffering enough to write it down"
- Elton John and Bernie Taupin's Sad Songs

Spilt beer. Lost poker pots. The ends of baseball seasons. Certain things make grown men cry, it's so true.

And music makes men weep - some songs obviously more than others. A recent British survey suggested R.E.M.'s empathetic 1993 single Everybody Hurts makes men the mistiest, with Tears in Heaven by Eric Clapton and Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah following second and third, respectively.

Story continues below advertisement

The online survey by PRS for Music, a royalty-collecting organization, wasn't a highly scientific process: 1,757 people answered the question, "Please name and rank three songs that make you cry." Not surprisingly, respondents gravitated to slow, mournful pop songs, with the top two hankie-prompters lyrically referring to tears or the act of crying.

For a couple of reasons, the survey isn't altogether revealing. First, because there wasn't a parallel poll asking women about the music that makes them weep, no conclusions can be made as to whether certain songs work their weepiness better on one gender or the other.

And two, just because men confess that Bruce Springsteen's brooding Streets of Philadelphia or Elton John's overwrought Candle in the Wind brings them to tears, it doesn't mean any actual salt is being shed. "You can hear a song and recognize the sadness, without feeling sad yourself," says Daniel Levitin, the author of the bestselling This Is Your Brain on Music and professor of psychology and behavioural neuroscience at Montreal's McGill University. "It's a cognitive appraisal of the song."

Levitin, who has extensively studied the effects of emotional music, suggests a more accurate way to test the music that moves men: "I would bring people into the laboratory and play the music, and measure the tears they produce," he says simply. "I use experimental approaches whenever I can." The American-born musician and neuroscientist was in Toronto on Wednesday, joining conductor Edwin Outwater and the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony for an interactive concert at Koerner Hall. The event, which attempted to demystify classical music and involved the live polling of an audience's emotional reaction to Beethoven's commanding Fifth Symphony, also took place on Thursday and Friday at the Conrad Centre in Kitchener, Ont.

There's not much in the way of evidence to support the notion that some songs tap the waterworks of men more than women. Justin Rutledge, an alt-country Toronto troubadour known for his affecting material, recently was surprised when a bull of a man in the audience shouted for something sombre. "It made me question why this husky, burly male requested Federal Mail, one of my most dainty, sentimental songs," said Rutledge, "To which, I have no answer."

If there are songs that affect men more profoundly than women, the material would probably fall into the father-son genre. On an episode of television's Cougar Town, women watched as two male characters stood face to face playing a game of "emotional chicken," listening to Harry Chapin's Cats in the Cradle to see who cried first.

The naming of slow, lyrically downbeat songs as quintessential weepers is as much a knee-jerked reaction as a tear-jerked one, because there is uplifting, inspiring music - gospel music and folk-protest songs - which causes tears to well up just as effectively. Bob Dylan's The Times They Are a-Changin' recognizes a regretful reality at the moment, but any bawling elicited would come from the song's hope for a better future.

Story continues below advertisement

Also, certain classical pieces and epic choral passages can cause soggy eye sockets with stirring upswells, not tragic operatic emoting.

There are many components of music that can play on human emotions: Lyrics, melody, the key performed in, chord changes, tempo - even timbre. "I had a professor who would break into tears when he heard Zamfir play the pan flute," says Levitin.

In short, the pieces that universally make us cry are songs that combine a sort of sublime gravity with an intensity of performance and an elegance of songcraft. There are many examples, of course, but Simon & Garfunkel's The Sounds of Silence and Bridge Over Troubled Water come to mind.

As for the British survey's winning weeper, Everybody Hurts, the reason for its emotional effectiveness is as simple as the song's title. "It's comforting," says Levitin. "You feel less alone, and you feel understood and nurtured when you hear it." Rutledge agrees: "The song's narrator is involving the audience - it's not 'I hurt,' it's 'everybody hurts.' "

Report an error Licensing Options
About the Author

Brad Wheeler is an arts reporter with The Globe and Mail. More

Comments are closed

We have closed comments on this story for legal reasons. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.