Sadness is relatable. With an outpouring of sorrow, a songwriter relates and connects with the listener through a sad song. That’s why I love listening to and creating sad songs.
I find writing a sad song cathartic. It’s a release that comes from the heart.
But good sad songs are more than just pouring your heart out. So, what knowledge do you need to write sad songs?
Beyond feels, guitarists have trusted techniques to bring out the emotion of the lyrics. None more so than sad chord progressions.
In this article, I’ll show you the tricks of the trade. You’ll discover sad chord progressions that’ll help you write the songs to connect with your listeners.
Table of Contents
What is a “sad” chord?
A sad chord is a set of notes formed to make a chord with sad timbres. If you want a chord to pull at the heartstrings, then a minor chord is the first place to turn to. Minor chords are the tried and tested sad chords. Yet, 7th and sus chords also resonate with an air of sadness.
What is a Sad Chord Progression?
In songwriting, a progression is a succession of chords. A sad chord progression is a set of chords with wistful characteristics.
There’s no hard and fast rule when creating a sad chord progression and they come in different forms. A harmonic progression in a minor key offers an instant sad timbre. But, a progression in a major key that incorporates minor chords can also have an air of sadness.
Don’t forget the power of sad lyrics. A chord progression in a major key without a minor chord can still sound sad. Mournful lyrics can produce bleak voicings that change the feel of the chords.
Nashville Number System
Before I list the top sad chord progressions, here’s something you need to know. Ever wondered about Roman Numerals next to chord progressions?
What you’re seeing is the Nashville Chord System. Before you run at the thought of music theory, let me explain in simple terms.
The Nashville Chord System is a shorthand way to remember chord progressions. Musicians use this system to remember chord progressions and bass lines on the fly.
As a songwriter, this numbering system will help you transpose chord progressions into different keys. The change will help you find a more suitable key for your vocal range and can change the feel of a famous song chord progression to make one of your own.
This system is also an easy way to look at the chords that will fit in the key of your song. So, if you’re trying to find which chords work best, looking along the scale will narrow your search.
You can also try turning major or minor chords into 7th or sus chords to create more richness to your music. In this system, for minor chords, the Roman Numerals are in lower case, while the 7th chords carry a 7 next to the number.
You’ll find a Nashville Number System chart below for you to refer to throughout the list of the top 10 sad chord progressions.
Top 10 Sad Songs and Chord Progressions
1. Bob Dylan – Blowing’ In The Wind
(C – F – G) (I – IV – V)
Check the chords here.
Let’s begin with a simple progression. Playing the 1, 4, then 5 chords is pure simplicity. But, if it’s good enough for Dylan, then who am I to argue. Dylan uses this progression to impressive effect while listing deep existential questions in the lyrics over the top.
Transposed to G major, the chords are G as I, C as IV, and D as the V chord. With these major chords, you’ll discover lots of songs like Ring of Fire by Johnny Cash and Leaving On a Jet Plane by John Denver.
Not forgetting with a simple key change, Bob Dylan uses this progression once again with Knockin’ On Heavens Door.
Turns out, you can create sad songs with the simplest chords. Let this progression be your cornerstone as a budding songwriter.
2. The Beatles – Let It Be
(C – G – Am – F) (I – V – vi – IV)
Check the chords here.
From Dylan to the Fab Four, we’re straight in with the big hitters. This progression incorporates a minor chord bound to stir emotion. It’s a chord transition that you’ll find in a large number of sad pop songs.
Using the same chords and starting with C Major is Bob Marley’s No Woman No Cry. Safe to say, this progression has proven to stir emotions.
When transposed into the key of D, the progression translates to D, A, Bm, G. A sequence used for U2’s With or Without You. Moreover, it’s the only four chords used throughout. So, get this one locked down. Whatever the key, you’ve got the foundation for a sad song to flourish.
3. The Verve – The Drugs Don’t Work
(C – Am – Em – F – G – C) (I – vi – iii – IV – V – I)
Check the chords here.
The Drugs Don’t Work uses similar chords to the previous sequence. So why include this? Well, it’s a great song. But beyond that, it also proves that using the Nashville Chord System has benefits. The Drugs Don’t Work has a chord progression including 6 guitar chords in the scale. So by embellishing simple progressions, you can create something original.
4. Ben E King – Stand By Me
(A – F#m – D – E) (I – vi – IV – V)
Check the chords here.
Considered a jazz sequence, the popularity of this chord progression soared throughout the 50s. There isn’t a doo-wop artist who hasn’t tried their hand at it. Think Earth Angel, Blue Moon, and Unchained Melody.
But its popularity is yet to diminish. From Every Breath You Take to I Will Always Love You and the more modern Just Like A Pill. They all use the 1, 6, 4, 5 chord progression. If you want versatility, I find this chord sequence covers most genres.
5. Eagle Eye Cherry – Save Tonight
(Am – F – C – G) (i – VI – III – VII)
Check the chords here.
I’ve used this chord sequence in songwriting more times than I care to think. Whether reserved for an impactful chorus or the intro of a song, it’s a progression so natural and effective it’s become a go-to of mine.
But it’s not just me who relies on this sequence. Eagle Eye Cherry uses it skillfully throughout his hit Save Tonight.
6. Wiz Khalifa – No Sleep
(C – F – Am – G) (I – IV – vi – V)
Starting with two strong major chords, there’s a solid hook. The minor chord draws the listener further before the final major chord offers closure.
It’s a hook with storytelling qualities allowing the writer to tell tales of sadness over the top. Used in Skyscraper by Demi Lovato and Summer of ’69 by Bryan Adams, there’s no genre out of bounds.
7. REM – Everybody Hurts
(D – G – Em – A) (I – IV – ii – V)
Check the chords here.
In the key of D Major, Everybody Hurts, shows once again sad chord progressions don’t need to be in a minor key. By repeating the I and IV chord throughout the intro and verse, it’s simple yet effective. For this reason, it was the first song I learned to fingerpick.
But the key (excuse the pun) is the ii chord in the chorus. The E minor moves the song in a sadder direction to great impact. Listen to the sample to hear the effectiveness of an E minor in the chorus.
8. Hank Williams – I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry
(E – E7 – A – E – B7 – E) (I – I7 – IV – I – V7 – I)
Check the chords here.
Let’s mix it up with some 7th chords. 7th chords incorporate the 7th note from the root note into a triad. I always find 7th chords add tension to a sequence. Perfect for drawing in the listener.
With I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry, there’s a gospel-like progression, dawdling tempo, and downright sad lyrics. Add them together, you’ve got the musical equal of heartbreak.
I find this progression works best for slower tempos. Increasing the tempo loses some sadness.
9. Leonard Cohen – Suzanne
(E – F#m – E – G#m – A) (I – ii – I – iii – IV)
Check the chords here.
Now for one of my favorite artists of all time, Leonard Cohen. He’s the master of creating sad songs. His dark, low vocal timbre becomes the focal point of heart-wrenching emotion.
But it’s his sad chord progressions that underpin the somber vocal voicings. In Suzanne, by returning to the I chord, there’s suspense and repetition to the sequence.
10. Adele – Rolling In The Deep
(Cm – Gm – A# – Gm – A#) (I – v – VII – v – VII)
Check the chords here.
Would any list of sad music be complete without an Adele number? After all, Adele is a modern-day maestro of the sad song.
The chord progression has a sweeping flow. Rolling in the Deep returns to a minor chord throughout the progression. It’s an earworm that maintains its sadness even at higher tempos.
Although the predominant instrument is the piano. I like to play this with power chords on the guitar. With a capo on the 3rd fret, the chords translate as Am, Em, G, Em so it’s pretty straightforward.
Sad Songs Most Common Patterns
When searching for and then playing sad songs, I found certain emotional chord progressions were prominent. I’ve numbered these progressions in relation to the Key of C.
- I – IV – V (C – F – G)
- I – V – vi – IV (C – G – Am – F)
- vi – V – IV – V (Am – G – F – G)
- vi – IV – I – V (Am – F – C – G)
- I – IV – vi – V (C – F – Am – G)
- I – vi – IV – V (C – Am – F – G)
The best songwriters of our time have established these chord progressions mainly using 4/4 timing. It’s the common time signature for contemporary music in the Western world.
But, it’s not set in stone. I’ve changed different chord progressions into a 3/4 time signature for a waltzing quality. By changing the time signature, emotional chord progressions get a new twist.
When using these progressions, something else you can play with is the tempo. Adjusting the BPM by the slightest measure will change the feel. In major keys, at higher tempos, progressions lose some sadness.
Now you have all the sad chord progressions, it’s time for you to practice your songwriting skills. All you need to do is make them your own.
There’s no need to reinvent the wheel with chord progressions. Songwriters have used the most common ones for years. You’ll find similar chord progressions on everything from vinyl records to the latest releases on streaming platforms.
How do you make them your own? Different strumming patterns, tempos, and time signatures will add unique personalities. Once you’ve got a flowing sad chord progression, all you need is the mournful lyrics to create the ultimate sad song.
Drawing on over 15 years of experience in the music industry, Neal’s writing specializes in all aspects of music. A self-taught guitarist who’s passionate about words, he’s at peace when songwriting. He finds comfort recording, traveling, and wearing his favorite leather jacket. Keep up to date on Twitter @TheNealSawyer
What is the best guitar chord progression for sad songs? ›
And chord progressions with descending bass lines often make great sad songs, there is something about moving down in notes that takes our mood with it!
Minor is the place to start if you want to convey sad emotions and this chord progression can be used to create a depressing feeling with the music. It's hard to sound happy when you just use minor and diminished chords.What is the most famous chord progression? ›
This progression is called “the most popular progression” for a reason. It's been used in just about every genre imaginable, from post-punk to country. It sounds so satisfying because each new chord in the pattern feels like a fresh emotional statement.
So when we're listening to music, our brain is constantly trying to guess what comes next. "And generally music is consonant rather than dissonant, so we expect a nice chord. So when that chord is not quite what we expect, it gives you a little bit of an emotional frisson, because it's strange and unexpected."What is the darkest chord progression? ›
The diminished chord is the darkest chord in music. This is because it's constructed with stacked minor third intervals. The D diminished chord and F diminished chord share most of the same notes. But, when you add a 7th to the chord they share all the same notes.What is the saddest guitar tuning? ›
Unofficially dubbed “the saddest tuning of all,” open D minor tuning is one of the easiest tunings to learn and also one of the most expressive. It allows you to play a D minor chord when you strum all six of your guitar strings in the open position.What is the devil's chord? ›
In music a tritone consists of two notes that are three whole steps apart, such as “C” to “F#.” Not found in either the major or minor scales, and due to its discordant sound, it has been called “the Devil's Chord.”What is the saddest key? ›
From there it's an easy skip to D, the root of today's subject, the “saddest key,” D minor. That the key of D minor is the key of true sorrow is ostensibly inarguable at this point in time.What is the saddest scale? ›
The minor scale is the pattern in western music typically associated with sad feelings. It includes three different variations called the natural minor scale (or Aeolian mode), the melodic minor scale and the harmonic minor scale.What are the 4 magic chords? ›
It turns out that the four magical chords are E, B, C# minor and A. But with so many chords to choose from, why did dozens of hit songs end up with the same four chords? At first glance, it seems strange that so many songs should have the same chords.
What are the 4 famous chords? ›
The famous four chords used in many pop song progressions are the I, V, vi and IV chords of a major key. The roman numerals represent the numbers of the major scale we begin a chord from (1, 5, 6, 4) so in C major this would be C, G, Amin, F or in G major it would be G, D, Emin, C.What are the 4 chords used in most pop songs? ›
They use the same four chords: I, IV, V, and vi, which are probably the most common chords in all of pop music. Because of this, they all sound somewhat similar; the difference is in the order of the chords.What is a creepy chord progression? ›
If you're a fan of scary movies you've definitely heard this chord progression before. The theory behind it is very simple: two minor chords spaced a minor 3rd apart. Don't just play these chords in root position though; the inversion matters!Is it okay to steal chord progressions? ›
Chord progressions are one of those song elements that aren't usually protected by copyright, so it's fine to take progressions that you like in other songs and use them in your own.What chord that creates a feeling of sadness? ›
Minor 7th chords or add9 chords work well because they aren't overtly dark, but instead create a subtle sadness that can't be accomplished with a major chord.What is the secret chord? ›
The 'secret chord' is a biblical reference. David was a King from the Hebrew bible, and although we all mostly remember him for being the underdog who defeated Goliath, he was, first and foremost, a musician. So we know David played a 'secret chord', whatever that may be.What is the hardest chord to learn? ›
The six-string F chord is one of the hardest standard chord shape to play on the guitar. When many people try to play the F chord on guitar (and often succeed), it's with far too much struggle and effort than is actually necessary. Even extremely influential guitarists can have a hard time with barre chords.What is the 3 chord trick? ›
The three-chord trick refers to an idea in music theory where a song, phrase, or musical idea is most likely to be based on the tonic, sub-dominant, and dominant chords (I-IV-V) of the major scale. These three chords can either work as the structural basis for a song or as an accompanying melody.What is the hardest song to play on guitar ever? ›
- Joe Satriani – The Mystical Potato Head Groove Thing.
- John Petrucci – Damage Control.
- Steve Vai – Juice.
- Eddie Van Halen – Eruption.
- Animals as Leaders – CAFO.
Drop D Tuning in Alternative Rock
Nirvana, the band that gave the world the ferocious drumming of Dave Grohl (who later birthed Foo Fighters), the murky bass stylings of Krist Novoselic, and the late, great vocalist/guitarist/songwriter Kurt Cobain, used Drop D tuning on nearly all of their songs.
What tuning is Blew Nirvana? ›
Bleach and Blew EP
Not realizing that they had already tuned to their favored D Standard tuning, the band tuned further down to Drop C on the first day of the sessions and recorded several songs in that tuning.
Relation to other chords with the ninth
The 6/9 chord is a pentad with a major triad joined by a sixth and ninth above the root, but no seventh. For example, C6/9 is C–E–G–A–D.
Minor 6 chords are used often in Gypsy jazz music instead of minor 7 chords. The formula for these two voicings, from low to high, is root–6–b3. (For Am6, that's A–F#–C; for Dm6, it's D–B–F.) Gypsy jazz has a distinctive diminished quality to it, which is achieved with the minor 6 chord.What key is hardest to play? ›
There is an order of the keys in terms of difficulty, and it is counterintuitive. The most difficult key is C major! In general, the keys that are easiest to learn are simultaneously the least natural for the hand. As a rule of thumb, the more black keys in a given key signature, the more comfortable it will be.What key is painful? ›
Audio Profile. Pain is written in the key of F♯m. Open Key notation: 4m.What is the most pleasing musical note? ›
Since the time of the ancient Greeks, we have known that two tones whose frequencies were related by a simple ratio like 2:1 (an octave) or 3:2 (a perfect fifth) produce the most pleasing, or consonant, musical intervals.What is the darkest musical scale? ›
The darkest scale is the double harmonic major scale which is just a major scale with a flat 2nd and a flat 6th. It features three half-steps in a row which form two augmented seconds. As a result, the double harmonic scale features some of the darkest modes and chords.What is the happiest key? ›
Noisy shouts of joy, laughing pleasure and not yet complete, full delight lies in E Major.What is the hardest scale to play? ›
This is somewhat more challenging to play. So, what is the most difficult scale to play? Once you know all your scales, they are about equal in difficulty. However, there is one scale that presents challenges no other scales have, and that is the C major scale!What is an emotional chord progression? ›
A chord progression is the sequence of chords in a song. Usually, the chords are represented by Roman numerals, which show the relationship between two musical notes, and are relative to a scale. A chord by itself doesn't have a narrative value, but a chord progression does and generates a particular emotional effect.
Which scale is best for sad songs? ›
The minor scale is the pattern in western music typically associated with sad feelings.What is the best key for sad music? ›
From there it's an easy skip to D, the root of today's subject, the “saddest key,” D minor. That the key of D minor is the key of true sorrow is ostensibly inarguable at this point in time.How do you make a sadder chord progression? ›
So try starting your progression with a major chord and then – wham! – hit them with a non-diatonic minor chord – one that's not in the key, that they won't have been expecting. For an idea of what this sounds like, try a major tonic chord – C major, for example – to the minor iv chord, Fm.What are the 7 guitar feelings? ›
In this lesson, you'll meet the major scale's seven modes—Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, and Locrian—and learn how you can use their distinctive sounds to create more interesting melodies and chords.What are major 7 chords? ›
What is a major 7th chord? A Major 7th chord is a 4-note chord consisting of the root, 3rd, fifth and major-7th. You can build the chord upwards from its root by stacking major-3rd, minor-3rd and major-3rd intervals. The major-7th chord is built using the 1, 3, 5 and 7 from the major scale.What sad music does to the brain? ›
As previously stated, sad music, to a higher degree than other types of music, is associated with certain psychological rewards, such as regulating or purging negative emotions, retrieving memories of important past events, and inducing feelings of connectedness and comfort (Taruffi and Koelsch, 2014).What is the darkest mode? ›
And so we continue, our scales growing progressively dark, until we reach Locrian, the darkest mode: Mixolydian becomes Dorian, which becomes Aeolian, which becomes Phrygian, which finally becomes Locrian, as we see here.What is the evil chord? ›
Like the Beast, it goes by many names: Diabolus in musica (devil in music), the devil's interval, the tritone, the triad and the flatted fifth. As its Latin moniker suggests, it's an evil sounding combination of notes that's designed to create a chilling or foreboding atmosphere.What scale does ACDC use? ›
Many of the solos in AC/DC tunes are based on pentatonic scales, particularly the minor pentatonic scale—the heart of classic rock soloing. You probably know position 1 of the minor pentatonic scale, nearly always the first scale a rock-oriented guitarist will learn.
The darkest scale is the double harmonic major scale which is just a major scale with a flat 2nd and a flat 6th.
What are the 7 keys in music? ›
Their names are Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, and Locrian. The music modes consist of the same notes as a major scale, but they start on each of the seven degrees of the major scale. For example, a C major scale (C, D, E, F, G, A, and B)What is the saddest scale on guitar? ›
The saddest scale on guitar, or just the saddest scale in general that you can play, is D minor. Well, actually it's the saddest key, but we needed to fill in some keywords for Google so don't go too hard on us. Before we get into it, we will be including a tab for each of the scales.