Many songwriters think that it’s better to write happy songs because people don’t really like sad songs. But it’s not true at all. People love sad songs. They listen to sad songs all the time. Because sad songs evoke more emotions and they help people cope with sad things that are happening in their life – for example, a breakup or a tragic event. So what songwriting tools we can use to write sad songs?
Write a slow song
Writing slow songs is probably the most important thing if we want to make a sad song. It’s more important than any other aspect of the song. You just cannot write a sad song that is in a fast tempo. Listen to any sad song and you will realize it. You can take any happy song, slow it down, and it becomes a sad song. In fact, the slower the song, the more lethargic it will be.
So how do you write a slow song? I already wrote about this in the previous post, but basically, it has to have low energy levels. This means a lot of things. Slow tempo, minimalistic instrumentation, and minimalistic rhythm are some of the most important examples.
Use more minor chords
You might think that this is obvious. Minor chords evoke sadness, major chords evoke happiness, duh. But I want to get into more specifics because I’m convinced that not many people know this. It doesn’t mean you have to use ONLY minor chords. Any good song, happy or sad, contains both minor and major chords. And you should use both minor and major chords. But sad songs use a little bit more minor chords.
Let me show you an example. You probably already know that many songs use these magic four chords: I – IV – V – VIm. For example, these are the chords in the key of C-major: C – F – G – Am. If you haven’t heard about this concept, you can learn why they work and how you can use them by going through our songwriting course.
So these four chords contain 3 major chords and 1 minor chord. But if you change one of the major chords to a minor chord, you can make the chord progression a little bit more sad. For example, in the song “We Don’t Talk Anymore” by Charlie Puth, the chord progression is: F – G – Am – Em (I put it in the key of C-major). As you can see, instead of using a C-major chord at the end, he is using an E-minor chord. And listen to how this chord progression makes the song sound more sad. As you can see, you can use major chords in a sad song, but more minor chords will move the song towards a more lethargic feel.
End the melody on the minor tonic
Now, the chord progression alone doesn’t necessarily make it a sad song. How the melody ends is also really important. Because the melody and the chord progression together determine the tonal center. For example, we can see a very similar chord progression in the song “Don’t Make Me Wait” by Sting and Shaggy. The chords are: I – IIIm – VIm – V which are C – Em – Am – G in the key of C-major. Again, instead of using the four most used chords, they are using Em instead of an F-major chord.
It’s very similar to the chord progression of the previous song. It contains two major chords and two minor chords. But is it a sad song? To be honest, the mood of the song is a little bit sad for me, and this is mainly because of the chord progression. But overall, I don’t consider it a sad song. And one of the reasons for this is the melody. While the melody of Charlie Puth’s song ends on the minor tonic (the note “A”), the melody of Sting’s song ends on the major tonic (the note “C”).
Use the III7 chord
What determines the key of a song? And this is not just about theories, but I’m talking about how the listener actually feels when he hears the song. What makes a song feel like it’s in a minor or a major key? The balance between major and minor chords is a totally different aspect. Because even if you use a lot of minor chords, the song can be in a major key. And we can see that the melody can suggest the tonal center. If the melody ends on the major tonic, it feels like that the note “C” is the tonal center, so it’s in a major key. If the melody ends on the minor tonic, then it feels like the note “A” is the tonal center so it’s in a minor key.
But in the previous examples, we were only talking about the Ionian and the Aeolian modes. When the chord progression is using only the chords of the C-major key, and the melody ends on the note “A”, then the song is in Aeolian. But there is one chord that strongly suggests that the song is in the harmonic minor key. It’s the III7 which is the E7 chord in the key of harmonic A-minor. (If we consider “C” the “I.”) When you use this chord, it makes it almost evident that the song is in a harmonic A-minor key. Because the III7 (E7) chord is the strongest dominant chord in the key of A-minor.
One of the examples of this is the chord progression of the song “Happier Than Ever” by Billie Eilish. (Despite the title, this is a sad song because the meaning of the title is not to be taken literally, it’s more like cynical.) Here is the chord progression of the song:
I – III7 – VIm – IIm V
C – E7 – Am – Dm G
It’s not obvious whether this song is in C-major or harmonic A-minor, especially because the melody ends on the tonic “C” note. But the III7 chord strongly suggests a harmonic A-minor key. I think it’s kind of like a mix of both minor and major keys.
Use the IVm chord
Another song with the III7 chord is the song “Creep” by Radiohead. Even though this song doesn’t even contain an A-minor chord, the III7 chord suggests that it’s in the key of harmonic A-minor. Here is the chord progression of this song:
I – III7 – IV – IVm
C – E7 – F – Fm
And there is another chord they use in this song, which is the IVm (F-minor chord). This is a borrowed chord, which means that it’s not from within the key but we borrow it from another key. This chord makes the mood of a song a little bit darker, especially if it’s a slow song. Another song with this chord is the song “Wake Me Up When September Ends” by Green Day. The IVm chord at the end of the chord progression makes it a little bit more lethargic. Here is the chord progression of this song:
C – G/B – Am – G – F – Fm – C
I – V/3 – VIm – V – IV – IVm – I
When it comes to sad songs, we obviously can’t write happy lyrics. Most of the time, the lyrics are about how we feel after a breakup or a tragedy. Here are some examples.
- The song “We Don’t Talk Anymore” by Charlie Puth is obviously about how he feels after a breakup. The title itself already tells us a lot about the topic of the lyrics.
- The song title “Hello” by Adele is not so obvious, but the content of the lyrics tells us again, that it’s another after-breakup story.
- The song “Happier Than Ever” by Billie Eilish can be misunderstood. Because the topic of the lyrics is that she is probably not happy. And it’s not surprising that it’s also an after-breakup story.
- “Creep” by Radiohead on the other hand is not an after-breakup story, but it’s about a guy who is in love with someone he can’t get, and he feels like a “weirdo”.
- The song “Wake Me Up When September Ends” by Green Day is actually not a romantic theme, and it’s about the tragic story of the singers father who died in cancer when he was only a boy.
While many musicians believe that it’s enough to use minor chords in order to write a sad song, actually it’s a little bit more complex than that. In fact, you can use major chords in sad songs too, but the most important thing is the tempo. You can only write a sad song that is in a slower tempo. The slower the better. And the chord progression, the melody, and some special chords can really make your song a perfect sad song that will influence the mood of your listener.
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About the Author
Producer, songwriter at Bánhidy András, and Barrio Latino Hungría. Author of The Rhythm Code.