Music is a universal language because it is emotive, today we will take you through 10 sad chord progressions that hit home.
Chord progressions are the foundation for any song structure, you build your tune around them.
There are so many songs that evoke sadness in the listener, but what sets them apart?
We’ll look at some of the chords that lie beneath some of the deepest, melancholy melodies in our top 10 sad chord progression picks.
1. I – vi – IV – V
Key of C: C – Am – F – G
We are easing you into our top picks with a popular chord progression known as the “One-Six-Four-Five”.
While it isn’t the saddest progression going, it is a common minor twist on the most-used rock, pop, and R&B progression that everyone should know.
Many melancholy ballads have put it to use time and again.
It is a great progression for a beginner to learn and provides a solid foundation for a sad song despite its lack of novelty.
There are countless examples of it throughout popular music but we have chosen “Unchained Melody” by the Righteous Brothers to demonstrate its contemplative sound.
Key of Bm: Bm – A – G – F#m
Now when it comes to sad chord progressions selecting a minor key, to begin with, and starting on the tonic immediately sets the tone of a piece.
So you are going to see a fair few sad progression selections that start on the i.
This next one is once again sticking in familiar territory.
The i-VII-VI-V progression is a common descending minor chord progression that is known as the Andalusian cadence.
You set the tonic with that minor in this case Am and then jump up to the highest chord in the key and begin your descent.
As the common name suggests it does indeed sound very Spanish, Arabic even depending on the mode you choose your melody line in.
Curiously though, despite its name, this popular progression arose from a melodic tetrachord used in ancient Greece.
Many songs in the 60s adopted this progression by changing the key to a major thus making it I-VII-VI-V with some pretty happy-sounding results.
It helped shape surf rock and rockabilly and was prevalent throughout songs.
Take a listen to “Good Vibrations” by the Beach Boys or “Happy Together” by The Turtles.
However, the minor key choice paired with the progressions descending nature is what gives you creative license to get dark or miserable.
Again there are plenty of examples (especially in Flamenco) but those held verse chords in “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” by The Animals highlight the vibe efficiently.
3. i – III – iv
Key of Am: Am – C – Dm
We are sticking with minor key chord progressions that begin on the tonic, but we are steering you toward a far more depressing path.
Having a three-chord progression that doesn’t really have a resolution of any sort creates a bit more of an ominous atmosphere.
The progressions we looked at above have a cadence that helps us feel like we are in a familiar place.
The first took us from the tonic to the dominant chord using the primary chords and kept things safe.
It was in a major key and only threw in one minor chord which if we excluded would leave us with the “one-four-five”.
The building blocks of rock, blues, and pop.
The second can descend and descend forever because it returns to the tonic which can be either above or below the VII depending on perspective.
You can think of it like an Ace in a deck of cards.
This progression, however, is in a minor key and contains two minor chords, one that hangs over two measures.
To leave us hanging on that minor subdominant (iv) leaves an air of uncertainty as if life itself is hanging in the balance.
A really good demonstration of it is in Johnny Cash’s cover version of “Hurt” by Nine Inch Nails
Trent Reznor’s original version is more complex than Cash’s.
Instead, he simplifies the colorful chord harmonic choices down to a bare-bone skeletal version.
He does away with the add9s, the 11s, and the 5#4 variations that Nine Inch Nails darkly employ giving the lyrics more impact.
4. ii – IV
Key of D: Em – A
A sad chord progression doesn’t need to be complicated as this one demonstrates.
With just two chords you can create a sorrowful mood.
Gary Jules uses this progression in the intro and verse sections of “Mad World”.
The back-and-forth motion that the chords provide gives it uncertainty.
It is in the key of D major and ignores the tonic making the E minor its home chord.
This imperfect cadence sounds unfinished.
So, by the end of the verse, the listener is begging for the piece to take them somewhere else musically which it thankfully does.
The sense of longing created sets up a musical foundation for a sad song with apathetic, woeful, or desolate lyrics.
Remarkably you can even replace the supertonic and use the tonic to the subdominant and still get a pretty sad sound.
A good case in point would be REM’s “Everybody Hurts”.
It is composed in the key of D major but uses the progression I-IV.
Despite the happier tonic note it still produces a song structure with room for dejected pensive lyrics.
If you listen to the two side by side you can hear a slight air of hope in the REM track.
“Mad World” however has an almost eerie feel as we have an unfamiliar starting point.
You can hear the mood lift when he momentarily brushes against the tonic with a Dsus chord later in the song.
It is paired with the line “Children waiting for the day they feel good” and is used very constructively to reflect the lyrics.
But the suspended character of the chord variation still doesn’t quite make you feel at ease.
5. i – VI – III
Key B minor: Bm – G – D
This next sad chord progression is similar to the one discussed above but the addition of the third chord gives it less of an apprehensive feel.
We move from the minor tonic through the fourth to a major median.
As it is one of the primary chords of the song’s key it is more cyclical.
This means you can use it to create a sad song that has a commercial, pop vibe.
It is ideal for a depressing or emotional ballad.
“Say Something” by Great Big World uses the above progression for its verse structure and is a song with a despondent protagonist.
Another song that also serves as a good example is “The Drugs Don’t Work” by the Verve.
In the case of the Verve track, we have a little resolve as it is a six-chord progression in the key of c major.
The first three chords follow the same pattern laid out above but it goes on to use the primary chords of the key and finishes on the tonic.
This takes you on an emotional cycle but ultimately brings some peace complementing the lyrics very constructively.
6. i – VII – IV – IV
Key of Bm: Bm – A – E – E
Another way to move from the I to the IV and create a different vibe to the two we have seen above is to pass through the leading tone.
By having the pit stop at the VII chord we get a bigger drop down the IV which hits deep.
It is a bit like when you feel something bad in the pit of your stomach, there is some added weight and gravity to the progression.
Take a look at “Wicked Game” by Chris Isaak his use of the Dorian scale the 6th note is lifted half a step which gives it a distinct characteristic.
It is a song that has a chord progression that sets it apart from your typical song.
As the listener isn’t expecting the progression it gives it an unnerving unpredictability.
Of course, the lyrics are what makes a truly sad song, but the sad chord progression is integral to assist in the set-up.
“Wicked Game” is actually an earnest song more contemplative than sad but the love is unrequited.
We are musically unrequited because it hangs on the IV for two measures.
7. i7 – III – VII – iv7sus4
Key of F#m: F#m – A – E – b7sus4
We are getting far away from your average chords now.
But in principle, this one utilizes many of the tools we have seen employed in the progression we have highlighted so far.
This one isn’t necessarily sad but it is apathetic.
We are again traveling from that root to the fourth only the fourth in this case is minor and has a 7th note with a suspended fourth.
The dissonance that is then created within the chord between the fourth and fifth notes clashing together adds tension.
To and the sequence on a tense note can be cleverly manipulated when you write lyrics and melody.
With the right lyrics and melody, you have the ingredients for a sad song.
This progression as it is denoted in the title isn’t used in many songs but a prime example would be “Wonderwall” by Oasis.
It is a love-hate song that had huge success but remains popular.
The Brit-pop track has an alien feel because the melody line adds the eleventh note of the sus chords which is an unexpected colored tone.
Gallagher’s voice is battling against the chords until they meet together in resolve.
It isn’t necessarily a sad song because of the band’s attitude and the tempo being so upbeat.
But the suspense-filled progression can be used to write something far more miserable, should you wish, so get experimenting.
8. VI – i – III – VI
Key of C#m: A – (B) – c#m – E- (b) – A
We demonstrated a descending sequence being used to create a sad song with the Andlasian progression earlier.
Now let’s look at how you can walk up and still get a melancholy vibe.
By starting and finishing on the major subdominant you can achieve a very isolated atmosphere.
This gives you a very open soundscape to lay lyrics and melody over, you have a lot of freedom what you do between the departure of the chord and its return is up to you.
Billie Eilish, despite her young age, has a wealth of original songs in her repertoire, many of them pretty melancholic.
She uses this chord progression with a few passing chords in between for “When The Party’s Over”.
We have denoted the extra grace chords that she uses as a stepping stone in the brackets above.
The song is haunting, largely because of her vocal qualities and melody line but also thanks to the structure provided by the sad chord progression.
The chord movement is almost reminiscent of a church hymn.
Although there is motion within the progression there is an overwhelming sense of defeat.
By starting and ending on IV you feel like you have gone nowhere and achieved nothing.
9. i – III – VII
Key of Am: Am – C – F
We are taking another Billie Eilish track to demonstrate misery.
We will leave this one short and sweet because it is a very simple progression.
It uses two primary chords making it a good pop option.
It shares similarities with the progression we opened with but that was in the key of C major and this one is set in the relative minor key.
This means we are already starting on the right footing for a more miserable tonality.
We still have those happy-sounding C major and F major chords but they are instantly more melancholic because our root is minor.
We are once again moving from the tonic of a minor key to the fourth but this time with the addition of the VI as a landing point.
Eilish forgoes a fourth chord leaving the final measure of each bar empty.
She doesn’t fill it with melody and this adds to the unsettled energy of the piece.
If the song was in the key of F major it would have a perfect cadence, so it isn’t out of place to our ears.
But the A minor key means that it doesn’t feel quite right; it is deceptive.
The lack of a final chord also makes it more apparent and creates tension and apprehension.
While her lyrics aren’t necessarily sad you can use this simple three-chord structured progression to compose some astonishingly sad pop pieces.
10. I – ii7/vi – V7- vi – v- IV7 – V7 – I – vi – IV – IV – I
Key of F: F – em7 – A7 – dm – Bbmaj7 – C7 – F – dm – G – Bb – F
We are leaving you with a classic that is slightly more complex but don’t let the sheer amount of chords within the progression overwhelm you.
At first glance it might seem like overload if you are new to music playing but as the song is so well-known you will get to grips with it.
We have included the iconic chord progression from “Yesterday” by The Beatles because it serves the brilliant purpose of demonstrating a sad chord progression in a major key.
It is in the key of F major but the melody is for the most part in C-Major creating a dissonance.
Despite the major key and minimal minor chords, it tugs on the heartstrings because it borrows a lot from its relative minor (D minor).
Veering into the relative minor means you can’t keep things cheerful, it has an underlying melancholia provided by the harmonic retreat.
“Yesterday” uses a musical composition trick known as “modal mixture” or “modal borrowing”.
Using this as a strategy creates a nostalgic sentiment and helps build emotion.
Being such a long-winded progression comparatively to the rest we have shown means it takes the audience on a real journey.
Perfect for contemplative lyrics.
The build in the first half of the sad progression grows wistfully to a peak filled with anguish before gently lulling us back down.
It is almost consoling us for the heartache and grief we are suffering as a listener.
It is an epic example of a sad chord progression for a budding musician to study and learn from.
Sad Chord Progressions – Final Thoughts
A sad chord progression is required to write a sad song.
While there are examples of sad or pensive lyrics placed juxtapositionally over a more joyful set of chords, they don’t hit you quite so deeply.
If you want to evoke real emotions from the listener then you need the music to truly take them somewhere miserable.
Miserable songs don’t necessarily have to be in a moor key if you utilize the chords within the key constructively as you will have seen.
Hopefully, our suggestions and examples today will have left you with enough food for thought to cook up some depressing chord progressions of your own.
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