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How To

How To Write Sad Song Lyrics

Photograph of the blog post author, Music Gateway Team

Music Gateway Team


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By Tamarin Fountain

Are you an aspiring songwriter seeking to share your experiences in your tracks? By creating honest, heartfelt lyrics you can move your listeners.

If you know how to write sad song lyrics that can speak to the masses, you may just have the making of a big hit on your hands. It doesn’t have to be a ballad either. Did you know that all genres of music can call on this emotion, even including up-tempo pop?

Read this article for lots of hints and tips on creating your very own melancholy masterpiece.

How to write sad song lyrics

Sad songs are a huge part of music culture, from the classics to pop, and everything in between. Most people can relate to sad songs in a way that helps to express emotions and feelings. As such, these lyrics can go far beyond the realm of pure entertainment. Instead offering a cathartic experience for the listener. Helping them to feel better, grieve and get a sense of being understood and empathised with

How do you write a sad song?

It’s useful for a beginner to practice some popular but simple songs and to experiment using a few notes and chords. At first, it’s best to keep it simple. Write and rewrite and make alterations as you go along.

Sad song formula

Use a structure

Songs are made up of verses and choruses. A common structure can be verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus. A bridge is a section that provides contrast, either a new key, chord progression or a different tempo. There are plenty of variations but that format is a good place to start. You can use technology, such as apps, to help you.

How to write an emotional song

Write lyrics to a melody – or vice versa

Some writers put the words to an already written melody, sometimes the lyrics come first, or you can write both in tandem. It’s not necessary to have the melody completed before you write the lyrics. And it doesn’t need to be an elaborate piece. Lyrics are like poetry and can convey deep feelings with the simplest of melodies. Often musicians will work together in partnership, with one known as a clever lyricist and the other writing the music.

Find a writing partner

Some of the biggest hits were written in collaboration. Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus were the magical music makers for ABBA. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards put out some memorable hits, having written hundreds of brilliant rock tracks. John Lennon and Paul McCartney were some of the most legendary writing duos. Elton John and Bernie Taupin had a winning combination with Elton as composer and Taupin as a lyricist with fantastic songs such as Rocket Man and Candle in the Wind.

Sad love songs

Pick a topic

Not all sad songs are about heartbreak, although many are. Emotions cover a wide range of factors and feelings. There are songs for every possible mood, including grief, anger, regret, longing for something or someone or somewhere, anxiety and many life experiences. Elvis Presley famously sang a song about a dog called Old Shep, which many considered to be one of the sweetest but saddest songs of that time. So when writing lyrics for a sad song, think outside the box and find a meaningful subject that will resonate with audiences.

Sad songs about life

Make it personal

Most people write songs relating to events in their lives. When writing about a situation it’s important to create an emotional response in the listener. If you can use experiences from your own life and make it pull on the heartstrings of the audience, you’ll probably have a successful song, maybe even a hit. Of course, it’s perfectly possible to imagine or invent a sad story, if you are creative and sensitive with the lyrics they don’t have to be personal to you. But they must be delivered convincingly.

Powerful emotional songs

Get ideas flowing

It might help to get out a pen and paper and write a few lines for about 15 minutes, focusing on sad moments and feelings. What has upset you or made you cry? Write down your thoughts as they come, roughly at first, and then later start to jot down an outline of the song. Work out how many verses, how long the chorus will be, and what each verse will say. At some point, a song title might develop and you might need to rewrite some lines. Pause and read back what you’ve written and consider what type of sadness you are trying to portray. There are plenty of examples of sad songs to listen to if you need inspiration, including some highly dramatic and moving operatic arias, gospel, country and pop, as well as all the break-up songs.

What is the saddest song ever written?

Get inspired by others’ work

Everybody Hurts by R.E.M. is a hauntingly powerful song, sung with great conviction and described by some critics as one of their best songs ever.

Pearl Jam’s hit Black is a song about letting go of a relationship but contains some positive lines such as ‘I hope someday you’ll have a beautiful life, I know you’ll be a star in somebody else’s sky”.

Eric Clapton’s Tears in Heaven is almost unbearably sad, and Sinead O’connor’s Nothing Compares 2 U must be among the top poignant songs.

Roy Orbison was known for his impassioned emotional ballads. Having suffered many tragedies in his personal life, many of his songs reflected sadness and melancholy. Walk-On has been described as one of his most moving and powerful songs.

Tell the story

When writing lyrics decide on the topic or subject. Focus on storytelling. For example, in s break up song each verse can reflect the stages of a relationship: how it started, where you met, how you felt before you met and afterwards, how your life was. Then shift to times you spent together until it started to change, and the breakup. You could end it there, or a final verse could be about life now, maybe give it an upbeat positive end, so that your audience doesn’t feel too depressed! However, you decide to write it, remember you are telling a story and it should resonate with the listener.

What makes a good sad song?

Many sad songs are gentle and soft, with a sense of melancholy, but an angry and loud song can be equally effective. So decide what type of sadness you are describing. Some songs start with an angry tone and become softer towards the end. The tempo, tune, key and chords help to invoke the mood. Listen to ‘Happy Birthday’ and you’ll notice the upbeat happy feeling. The Beatles’ song Eleanor Rigby has a bleaker, atmospheric sadness. The composers of these songs intended them to sound this way, and with some experimenting and practise this can be achieved.

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What songs will make you cry?

There are opera arias that can make you sob uncontrollably. La Boheme by Puccini, in which Mimi is not only separated from her true love but also dies from consumption, has the aria Sono Andati as she meets her tragic end. Madama Butterfly, also by Puccini, and later the basis for the musical Miss Saigon, has tragedy at its core with outstanding expressive songs.

So how do you make your audience cry at your lyrics…

Pick a super sad subject

To recognize a sad song you need to feel something deeply. The words can bring back memories of some personal event, or a longing for something difficult to attain. There are no rules, if people relate to your song it can have meaning for many different reasons. What Kind of Fool Am I, by Anthony Newley, is about a man who can’t fall in love, and considers himself some sort of fool with an empty heart. This is a different kind of sadness, not about something that happened in the past, but pure day-to-day longing for something. Adele has said her songs have to move her and make her cry to know it’s good enough. Set Fire To The Rain was reflecting her state of mind after splitting with her boyfriend.

Bright Eyes by Art Garfunkel has the lyrics “Bright Eyes burning like fire, how can you close and fail”. Unlike other songs, this is about a rabbit in the film Watership Down, which proves sad songs can cover a huge range of subjects. The Streets of London is another example, telling of a city where there are lonely homeless people. The subjects are endless and wide-ranging.

Upbeat songs with sad lyrics

Generally speaking, a sad song is instantly recognizable by the music and words. But there are catchy upbeat tunes that sound happy – until the meaning of the words becomes clear. Mamma Mia, a massive hit for ABBA, sounds bouncy with a real singalong vibe. But look at the words: ‘I’ve been broken-hearted, blue since the day we parted”, not a very cheerful song at all. ‘Delilah’, another well-known song and a big hit for Tom Jones is also a karaoke favourite, but the lyrics are dark and angry. Katy Perry’s The One That Got Away, Sunday Morning by Maroon 5 and Somebody Else by The 1975 also fit into this category. These songs are not always easy to write. If the melody is already composed with a lively tempo and bright chords it takes some skill to fit in the sad lyrics convincingly, but they can be very successful.

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Songs that sound happy but are sad

In the 1960s Lesley Gore had a number 1 hit with ‘It’s My Party’, a bouncy song that’s been covered many times and has stood the test of time. But the lyrics “it’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to” tell the story of a teenage girl whose boyfriend turns up at the party with another girl. It’s a sad story but remains deceptively upbeat.

Similarly, Robyn’s Dancing On My Own may be a former club hit, but its tale of unrequited and lost love is very touching. Often these songs are re-recorded as acoustic versions to bring out the nature of the song’s lyrics even further. Not only does this mean more of a diverse collection for the artist, but it also brings in more money and streams. As the creator can release the same song lyrics, twice over. Sia’s Chandelier is a similar example. Country music can also offer fun enjoyable tunes that can contain dark and sad lyrics.

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Uplifting songs that can be sad

Although there is plenty of scope for finding stories and experiences that will help to form sad, tear-jerking lyrics, in a strange way there are certain songs that although sad, can also be categorized as uplifting and happy. It can be quite a challenge to write such songs but the results can be very moving and warm. Not everyone would think of Leonard Cohen’s songs as uplifting, and his voice has even been described as depressing, but that’s missing the meaning in some of his songs. As an example, Alexandra Leaving is about the end of a love affair, so yes, it is sad. But it is also about being thankful for the time spent together and appreciating that time, in the words ‘Drink it in, exquisite music, Alexandra laughing”.

Motown produced many sad but uplifting records. The Happening by The Supremes is a beautiful fun song that makes you want to get up and dance even though it’s essentially a sad song “I saw my dreams fall apart when love walked away from my heart”. So it’s perfectly possible to write a sad song that leaves the audience feeling uplifted and smiling.

How to write a sad song from scratch

In the beginning, it’s best to concentrate on the quality of the lyrics, rather than trying to write a prolific amount of songs. One strong memorable song is better than three or four badly written weak songs. Start with the topic and think about how the lyrics will fit the music. Take time to be creative and imaginative. Ask people whose opinions you trust to give you feedback and ask them to be honest. It’s one thing to sit in your room singing with your guitar or keys, but you need to engage your audience. And don’t forget to write it down at some point. If it’s just in your head, it won’t be eligible for copyright.

The saddest song lyrics

Think about words and language

When writing a sad song the choice of words can make all the difference. What emotions are you trying to express? After you’ve written the song try reading it out loud like a poem. The language of poetry can be inspiring and some very old classics can be brought up to date with current terminology to give ideas for lyrics. For example, this poem by Lord Byron, “So we’ll go no more a-roving”, is full of passionate but sad language “Though the night was made for loving, and the day returns too soon, Yet we’ll go no more a-roving by the light of the moon”. This could refer to death, a relationship ending, or even the ending of travelling adventures – the possibilities are endless for an imaginative lyricist.

For a very different portrayal of sadness, a more up to date description of loneliness is Sometimes I Get Lonely by Emily B. These lines ring true for these times: Sometimes I get lonely, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook. Always connecting but not connected.” Choose words and language carefully to get the right mood and reaction.

There’s a song for every mood. Be it nostalgia, grief, missing someone, loneliness, anxiety, bad memories, mourning, or unshed tears. Songwriters have had some of their biggest hits with sad songs, the important factor is to touch the hearts and emotions of the listener.

What is the saddest of all keys?

According to the Spinal Tap mockumentary of the 1980s, Dm is not only the ‘saddest of all keys’ but it ‘makes people weep instantly.’ This may have been written tongue in cheek, but the key of D and minor scales are frequently used to create a sad effect when songwriting.

How do you sing sad songs?

A sad song needs a delivery to match. This can be achieved via a combination of vocal technique and performance style. Try adding some vibrato to your voice, perhaps a catch here and there. Vocal runs will also add dynamism, as will a stillness and a movingly haunted look.

Why do some happy songs make me sad?

Music is incredibly emotive and can be triggering. It may remind you of a specific memory or event that was sad. This can happen on a subconscious level, without you even realising it. The song may be uptempo so seemingly happy, but have heartbreaking lyrics. Or vice versa.

Have you written some sad song lyrics yourself? We’d love to listen to your melancholy rhymes. Share links to your work (written or recorded) in the comments section below.


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