Why do sad songs mean so much?

MY BELOVED has no great aversion to men in kilts. She even married one. 

She’s as moved as anyone by the sight of a lone piper on a castle battlement and has been known to step out on the ceilidh dance floor with gusto.

FORMAL DRESS: the big day PICTURE: Alexis Jaworski

But expose her to what she cruelly dubs “maudlin and sentimental” Scottish music and she’s a lot less sympathetic.

This is the source of the occasional good-humoured marital disagreement, because I have a weakness for the sort of poetry and song that’s guaranteed to make any exiled Scot go misty-eyed with emotion over their glass of malt.

Why so? A childhood of holidays on the Moray Coast and four years at Aberdeen University for a start.

HOLIDAY MEMORIES: Findochty on the Moray Coast

Summers in the sixties were spent roaming the cliffs and beaches of the small fishing village of “Finechty” surrounded by what seemed a huge extended family of uncles and cousins.

The chance to study Scots and Irish literature amid the hallowed walls of the ancient university in Aberdeen meant returning north as a teenager to the Granite City with its seagull cries and those biting winds sweeping in off the North Sea.

The latter half of the 1970s were spent here, enjoying the still calm of a lonely desk hidden among the “stacks” of King’s College library in Old Aberdeen and attempting to explore all of the city’s 250-odd drinking establishments.

SEASIDE RENDEZVOUS: the beach at “Finechty”

After that, a decade working on the local paper, initially as a trainee reporter and later as features editor of the Evening Express, meant years spent experiencing, relishing and chronicling all the trials and tribulations of life in the north-east of Scotland.

Life in Thatcher’s Britain was posing plenty of challenges, but from “district drives” in remote Aberdeenshire villages to interviewing everyone from politicians and professors to farmers and teachers, detectives and criminals, there could hardly be a better way of immersing yourself fully in the community.

It was a young, sociable team on the EE too, with 4pm finishes allowing plenty of time for teatime drinks down at the Kirkgate Bar, which had also been a popular student haunt.

FAREWELL TOAST: an EE leaving do in the 1980s

All of which of course means countless memories too: of friends and family, student parties and dances, music and laughter, times of loss and fond thoughts of those no longer around to share the reminiscences.

Which is where the music comes in. But why do we listen to sad music? And is nostalgic music necessarily sad?

The song that has prompted the whole conversation is one that’s a new discovery to me: Lewis Capaldi’s Someone You Loved, released back in 2019 and inspired by the death of the Scottish singer-songwriter’s grandmother.

The accompanying video featuring his distant cousin, the actor Peter Capaldi, is a real tearjerker, made in partnership with charity organisation Live Life Give Life to help raise awareness about the issue of organ donation.

It’s a poignant story of loss and hope about a husband who is trying to cope with the death of his wife, who became the heart donor for the young mother of another family, saving her life.

Heartbreaking, uplifting, impactful…the Youtube comments make it clear that this is a song which resonates with listeners, especially those struggling to cope with bereavement. It doubtless became an instant hit to play at funerals.

It’s also brilliantly performed by the actor we know better as Dr Who, or the irascible, foul-mouthed Malcolm Tucker in The Thick Of It and In The Loop.

Like all timeless art, it captures the universality of those shared emotions which help to tie us together, reminding us of our own lost loved ones: the tinkling laugh of a favourite London aunt or soft Scottish burr of a kindly Orcadian uncle, perhaps.

Like a picture from an old album, our thoughts may wander back to a moment frozen in time: that day back in the 1960s when my mum was standing with her brothers and my young sister Fiona outside my grandmother’s home in Findochty, for example.

FLASHBACK: a rare, rediscovered 1960s family snapshot

I don’t remember the smart white coat, but she was obviously very proud of it. My uncles, John-Alec and Willie (“Doods”), would doubtless have been gently teasing my father about his “posh job” in London, and slyly slipping me a half-crown at some point during the holiday that I could use to buy a paperback.

The picture is significant because it’s such an “ordinary” unposed shot, taken at a time when we owned neither a camera nor a car, and all the more poignant because it remained undiscovered for decades in a box of old slides, unseen because we never owned a slide projector either.

It’s not my favourite picture of my uncles, though: that honour goes to an earlier almost biblical shot of the trawler skippers mending their nets in the harbour. But both shots are evocative reminders of where my own family’s journey started.

BIBLICAL IMAGE: mending the nets

This is the small fishing village that my mother left as a teenager to train to become a nurse and midwife – initially in Aberdeen and later hundreds of miles away in London.

Our annual childhood visits back to the north-east were an August ritual for years, my grandmother always a familiar figure on the doorstep of “Number Eight”, a house that smelt of polished wood and bubbling broth, where there was an organ in the smart front room and a short-wave radio in the lounge for tuning in to the fishing boats at sea.

WELCOMING SMILE: grannie on her doorstep

This is where my mother and father married in the mid-1950s, surrounded by friends and family at the small village church, guests arriving by steam train on the glorious coastal route along the cliffs from Cullen, a trackbed I would walk as a teenager 20 years later, long after the last train had run.

BIG DAY: wedding guests outside the village church

It’s the same church you can see from the picturesque cemetery where nowadays they and other family members are buried: a last resting place in the most spectacular of locations.

Which takes us back to Lewis Capaldi, perhaps. Nostalgia is all about a sentimental longing for times past, wistful memories of pleasure or sadness from years gone by – like those wonderful summer holidays in Scotland, for example, with relatives who have long since passed.

COASTAL VIEWS: the cemetery overlooking Findochty

Capaldi’s sensitive lyrics give the song a broader appeal too, not just for those grieving the loss of a loved one, but for anyone lamenting the end of a relationship, perhaps.

That’s all very well. But why do we often actively enjoy listening to sad music? And are Scots particularly fond of wallowing over sentimental memories?

Scots traditional music is steeped in melancholy, of course: of parting and of unrequited love, of forgotten battles and the homesickness suffered by those forced to leave their homeland and emigrate abroad.

Celtic tunes crossed oceans and ancient ballads and laments became an important basis for American folk, bluegrass, and country music too.

JAM SESSION: university friends tune up

Music was a constant theme of my university years, at ceilidhs and discos and impromptu jam sessions with talented friends.

From nights at the ABC Bowl in George Street watching Frank Robb and Super Klute to sociable sessions at the Malt Mill or Bobbin Mill, we made the most of Aberdeen’s thriving music scene.

There were regular ceilidhs at the Northern Hotel, Celtic Society and university officers’ training corps, Sunday jazz at the Gloucester Hotel, countless informal get-togethers in snug bars and student flats.

And years later those songs would still resonate in the memory, LPs of bands like Five Hand Reel, Ossian and Runrig on regular repeat to recapture happy memories of those sociable years.

Why do we love sad songs so much, though? As Simon McCarthy-Jones discusses in The Conversation, perhaps it’s all about empathy: that flood of emotions we feel when we relate to other people’s circumstances and can share in their hopes, fears and tribulations.

Nostalgia relates to our memories being trigggered by important moments and shared experiences in our own lives: and from Burns poems to Scotland the Brave or the Bonnie Banks o’ Loch Lomond, it doesn’t take long for a group of exiled Scots to start belting out some familiar classics.

From protest songs like Hamish Henderson’s evocative Freedom-Come-All-Ye to the unofficial national anthem that is Dougie Maclean’s Caledonia, a song with a story to tell is all the more resonant too.

Whether it’s the technical brilliance of a plaintive chord or haunting melody, the beauty of the lyrics or vividness of the imagery, this is music to make the heart melt.

But let me tell you that I love you, that I think about you all the time
Caledonia you’re calling me and now I’m going home

Such songs may stimulate the release of comforting hormones, boost our feelings of connectedness or help to distract us from our problems, but whatever the underlying science, it seems that sometimes allowing ourselves to spend a little time savouring melancholic thoughts can help boost our overall emotional health.

TARTAN REUNION: a night of music and song

And bring a group of exiled Scots together for a Burns night meal or similar celebration and it’s unthinkable that there won’t be plenty of music and song to accompany sentimental reminiscences about times past.

The lyrics don’t have to directly echo our own life experiences, either: we can empathise with the specifics while tapping into the same broad emotions, conjuring up a kaleidoscope of our own memories spanning the years.

In my case, that might mean nights out with university friends or office outings with colleagues from the Evening Express – to the Insch races, Braemar gathering or rugby in Paris.

EIGHTIES HEYDAY: the Evening Express before computerisation

Listening to Caledonia might remind me of bumping into Dougie MacLean at a bar during the Edinburgh Festival, the chants on the rugby terraces at Murrayfield, that familiar brewery smell when you step off the train at Haymarket or Waverley.

Or waking on the overnight sleeper to be greeted by those glorious coastal views as the train wends over the border and north towards Dundee and Aberdeen…

Or those countless nights of fun and friendship with work colleagues, tinged with sadness because not all of those smiling faces are still around to share the memories.

ABSENT FRIENDS: EE staff enjoy a night out

Sharing a dram with an old friend who’s been told he is dying, the tunes and the memories are all the more poignant, of course.

We met as 17-year-olds almost half a century ago and have shared plenty of adventures over the years, at home and abroad. There are a lot of tales to tell and laughs to share.

As students we worked long shifts in a Dutch pickle factory and later rode the rails around Europe. We slept on Milan station, played backgammon on a Greek ferry, fell ill on a crowded train in what was then Yugoslavia.

TRAVELLERS’ TALES: a night out on Speyside

A croupier, teacher, filmmaker, bullrunner and entrepreneur with a mischievous sense of humour, a knack for political incorrectness and a distrust of anyone in authority, he’s fondly remembered by former students for his eccentric ties – one for every day of the teaching year – and even more colourful teaching methods, as well as those school football tours abroad that involved a great deal more socialising than football.

Being around him has its drawbacks. The relentless lack of political incorrectness, the bad jokes and madcap schemes can be exhausting. But the childlike joy at planning a merry jape is ample compensation, especially when you can look back with affection on countless shared adventures spanning more than four decades.

Pour him a large whisky and those old stories start to flow, many particularly poignant because health worries and the advancing years mean that we can’t turn back the clock.

SHARED ADVENTURES: raising a glass at New Year

But if the past cannot be repeated, it can certainly still be recaptured – and perhaps that’s where those sad songs are of most importance.

Interestingly, when it comes to his nomination for an old favourite to savour over a dram, it’s a timeless classic from the Scots band Runrig, with a particularly poignant story to tell.

Back in 1973, two brothers and a friend from the Scottish island of Skye formed a ceilidh dance band that would go on to tour the world, release a string of hit records and touch the hearts of millions of fans.

Inspired by the language and history of the Western Isles, Runrig took Gaelic culture from the dance halls of the Highlands to massive arenas across Europe, although when we saw them play at the students’ union in Aberdeen it was a far cry from their final performance four decades later in front of 50,000 crying, dancing fans in the shadow of Stirling Castle.

But you don’t have to come from the Hebrides to understand how our past shapes and defines us, or to appreciate the poignant beauty of music and melody which is infused with both joy and sadness.

And when we watch the emotional video which accompanies “The Story”, there are dozens of intermingled images conjured up by those lyrics: of student nights in an Aberdeen bar or wild ceilidhs in remote village halls, of the annual Highlanders’ dance at Portobello Town Hall in Edinburgh, of all those exploits and hijinks that span the decades: of watching children grow up and grieving the loss of family and friends, of love and loss, of hope and laughter.

And that’s the beauty of good music. Or, as Elton John tells us:

They reach into your room, oh oh oh
Just feel their gentle touch (gentle touch)
When all hope is gone
You know sad songs say so much

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