“Sad Girl” Music and the Iso Principle

Issue # 
March 2, 2024

“Sad girl” pop isn’t a new genre, but it’s been having a renaissance over the last decade. That’s thanks to artists like Billie Eilish, Gracie Abrams, Olivia Rodrigo, Japanese Breakfast, Phoebe Bridgers, and so much more who are dropping hits lilting in melancholy. 

It also comes at a time when the generations consuming pop music are increasingly open and intimate about their mental health, and music has long been a natural vehicle for people to self-regulate their emotions. 

"There's a cliche about pop that it represents a retreat from reality, an escapist fantasy world where listeners get to leave their fears and anxieties in a vision of Katy Perry's 'Teenage Dream' or fun.'s 'We Are Young,'" Nate Sloan, host of Switched on Pop and assistant professor of musicology at USC Thornton School of Music, told Grammy news. "But modern listeners — especially young people — are pushing back against that paradigm, celebrating artists like Billie Eilish, Halsey, and girl in red, who don't shy away from the troubles of the world but sublimate them into their music." 

He adds that this music helps them deal with their own "lived realities."

And so it makes sense that music streaming services are teeming with these soft and somber “sad girl” playlists, ones that listeners might turn to when they’re feeling sad or overwhelmed or wistful. 

Music psychology expert Dr. Michael Bonshor told Esquire that people, especially young people, can and often use music to complement emotions. “If we want to continue feeling a certain way, we can choose songs that reinforce it. If we want to change our mood, then we can use music to change it, too.”

He adds that listening to “sad girl” music doesn’t inherently suggest someone is sad. They might want to relax, since that music tends to be slower, less intense, and melodic. 

And a carefully curated “sad girl” playlist might cater or facilitate a mood, to a point. But if you’re looking to move from one undesired emotion (sadness, anxiety, stress) to a more desired one (content, focused, calm), you’ll want to get a bit more scientific with your music choices.

That’s why, at Spiritune, you won’t find a Billie Eilish song on one of our playlists. It’s a great song that might be slightly self-soothing, but it doesn’t follow the iso principle.

The iso principle is all about the journey. It follows that, if you’re trying to achieve a certain emotion, the music should first match your current emotional state and then gradually shift toward music that aligns with how you’d like to feel. 

We utilize the iso principle as a cornerstone in our Spiritune music compositions. That's why, when you open up the Spiritune app, we always ask you how you *currently* feel, and then how you want to feel. 

When the music meets the user where they are, it helps them feel validated, seen and embraced in whatever emotion they’re feeling. Then as the musical features gradually shift towards their desired emotion, the listener is able to feel tangible relief as the music helps gently guide them towards where they want to be.

“Our music is all about facilitating emotional transitions, offering a pathway to catharsis and understanding, like a musical GPS, leading you through your ups and downs,” Spiritune founder Jamie Pabst says. “In a world where mental health seems to be deteriorating by the day, people are craving tunes that get them, that speak to their real-life struggles, offering a shoulder to lean on and a hand to pull them through.”

When you think about “sad girl” music from the lens of the iso principle—or the power of musical transition on our mood—it makes sense that someone might turn to it when they’re already feeling sad, or want to feel a little wistful.

But to move from one mood to another, you can’t simply dwell in the same musical space and hope to magically feel like a new person. 

There’s a science to the transition - and that’s where the magic happens.

You may also enjoy...