Did you know that grief and sadness are believed to be some of the two strongest emotions on the emotional spectrum?
It’s no surprise then that sad songs are everywhere. Sadness is something everyone can relate to regardless of age, gender, experience, or life situation.
People have been writing and listening to sad songs for centuries and that’s not expected to change anytime soon.
It’s a big topic with many intricacies, some more uplifting than others. People get addicted to exploring and relating to deep emotions.
But why do so many artists write sad songs?
Because music is an excellent outlet for our emotions. Listeners rely on music–on songwriters– to be their translator for when they cannot put their emotions into words; especially any emotion that people feel so deeply.
For us songwriters, sadness is an endless source of inspiration – as well as an outlet to express feelings that we can’t talk about.
But it’s hard to write a good sad song.
It’s easy to rely on cliches, fall into lazy habits, and recycle popular but old content.
And the largest drawback is writing great sad songs can be uncomfortable. You’ll have to dig deep into your own thoughts, experiences, and feelings and bare your soul to the world.
And perhaps most importantly, not remain melancholy afterward.
The good news is you can write strong, catchy, memorable sad songs if you know the common mistakes to avoid.
In this post, we’ll explore not only the writing process for writing sad songs but the ingredients to crafting heartfelt ones.
Step 1: Assemble Your Blanket Nest…Mean, Songwriting Tools
Write where you feel most productive and comfortable and later on, you may want a box of tissues nearby.
Grab your guitar, piano, or other favorite instrument, plus a recording device and a notebook.
It’s best to collect any notes you may have gathered for inspiration, which may include song titles, quotes, stories, phrases, or experiences you’ve had, heard, or seen.
Get into the headspace by listening to sad songs or watching a sad movie.
Step 2: Leaping into the Void (Understand the Emotion)
Sad can mean a lot of things.
Your song requires a central, unifying idea as the theme or concept. Your concept can be a title, a story, or even a real-life experience from your own life or someone else’s.
While the best sad songs are inspired by reality, yours doesn’t need to include your entire life story.
Since sad songs are a rather large topic, you’ll want to narrow down your idea from the get-go so you can stay focused.
Use this list of topics for inspiration:
- Grief or Loss of a loved one (pet, companion, friend, miscarriages, family member)
- Rejection or slights
- Being single or losing a love opportunity
- Loss over childhood or innocence, nostalgia, and memories
- Remembrance of a sad or tragic event
- Illness – Mental or Physical journeys and struggles
Once you have a general topic or direction, decide what your song will say about that idea (that’s your concept)
A strong concept will be [topic] + [your angle/opinion] + emotion]
Giving your song a strong concept or a unique angle from the beginning will make it much easier to write.
Do you want your listeners to feel frustration, anger, even uplifted at the end, or something else entirely? When you know what you’re aiming for, you’re more likely to write a song that pulls on people’s heartstrings.
Decide what kind of sad song you want to write
Sad doesn’t mean slow. There are many sad songs with melancholy lyrics but fast or even upbeat tempos. Some sad songs dip into the angry and loud categories and can be effective. The tempo, tune, key, and chords all aid in invoking the emotion and mood of the listener.
The composition of these styles of sad songs requires experimentation and practice for them to come out this way but it can still be accomplished. Here are some examples of songs that are upbeat or may even sound happy but have sad or tragic lyrics or meaning behind the song:
- Pumped Up Kicks by Foster the People
- Escape (The Pina Colada Song) by Rupert Holmes
- Older by Alex Benjamin
- Mammia Mia by ABBA
- Fancy by Reba McEntire
- Adore You by Harry Styles
- Misery by Green Day
- Church Bells by Carrie Underwood
- Royals by Lorde
- Drunk on a Plane by Dierks Bentley
- Born in the USA by Bruce Springsteen
Step 3: The House That Built Me (Establish the Song Structure)
Your song’s structure is the foundation you’ll build upon. Choosing a structure from the beginning makes your writing process easier.
But your structure matters to listeners: even if they don’t notice. It’s what makes the song memorable, relatable, and familiar.
The typical structure of a sad song is verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus. But what does this structure mean? What’s the purpose of each and how do you transition between them? Well, let’s dive into it:
A refrain is a repeating line or verse used throughout a song, often with an accompanying melody particular to that line/verse.
A chorus is the main, best, and most often repeated hook in your song.
It usually includes your theme and ties together your song’s narrative.
The purpose of your chorus is to relieve the tension or curiosity that you’ve built with your verses.
A bridge is a transition that connects two sections of a song.
It functions very much like bridges on land, helping the listener move from one part of the song to the next — often from a chorus to a last verse or between two choruses near the end of your song.
Bridges typically provide a contrast to the rest of the song, while still fitting in with the overall vibe. They can feature different melodies, chord progressions, instruments, dynamics, keys, tempo, or meter.
To keep things simple, the exact definition of an outro would be just that: the way in which a song ends.
Can’t get enough of this section? Learn more about song structure on my blog post, Song Structure 101, for further inspiration and learning.
Step 4: Crafting a Whiskey Lullaby (Create Meaningful Lyrics)
Be thoughtful with your word choices. That’s always true of lyrics but what does that mean when it comes to writing sad songs?
Avoid lazy writing.
Avoid crutches like cliches as they block the real creative process and your true voice.
Invoke emotions. Consider the connotations or double meanings of the words you use throughout your piece.
This may take a few drafts to begin to swap out the words you actually want to use but that’s why it’s important to have your concept or theme chosen early on.
Sad lyrics, like any form of writing, rely upon techniques that paint a picture and transport the listener into the story.
Using writing techniques such as metaphors, similes, and other forms of descriptive or imaginative language can help enhance the emotional impact of your lyrics.
Think about what image best describes the specific emotion you wish to describe. Example: “You are like a heavy cloud of rain” OR “You are a heavy cloud of rain.”
Remember: be specific.
Sad songs need more than just well-placed metaphors to resonate with audiences. Use your lyrics to tell an emotional story.
By using techniques seen throughout the art of storytelling, songwriters can connect to their listeners on a deeper level.
You may notice that most songs are crafted in the first-person point of view. This helps draw the listener in and allows them to step into the songwriter’s shoes (or the persona they created).
Develop a compelling narrative within your sad song in order to convey the emotions to your audience. Try to describe the sad event itself in free form first with a before, during, and after.
Even if your song isn’t a story with a beginning, middle, and end, using imaginative language creates a greater impact on your listeners. There’s a significant difference between simply saying “I’m depressed and lonely” versus “I hurt myself today to see if I still feel. I focus on the pain, the only thing that’s real.” (From “Hurt” by Nine Inch Nails, though if you don’t listen to Johnny Cash’s cover you’re doing yourself a great disservice.)
Build up tension or anticipation and work with a level of honesty in your lyrics surrounding a sad event or experience.
Remember: be specific.
Remove the excess and keep the heart of your theme and emotion in your sad song.
Step 5: Turn Up the Dial (Use Melody to Enhance Emotion)
If your listeners couldn’t hear your lyrics, they’d rely on the melody to craft that emotional journey for them.
Don’t be afraid to stick to simple. A few chords and repetition can go a long way in making your song catchy and rhythmic.
Adding harmonies can deepen the emotional experience. Some songwriters create an echo or a reflection of self. In other instances, echoed harmonies can imply a dual point of view (something to keep in mind if you have a songwriting partner).
Most sad songs are written in minor keys and chord progressions with slower tempos like 70 and 90 bpm. This will give you plenty of space for long, descriptive passages and words describing your personal experience.
But, as I said before, sad songs don’t necessarily mean slow. Changing it up can not only add irony, changing expectations or perspectives, but it also gives you, the songwriter, more creative freedom to experiment.
However, if your purpose is to write a sad song for sad people to listen to sadly, the mood of your melody should match your lyrics.
Need more help understanding Melodies? Use this article right here: https://bettersongs.com/how-to-write-a-melody/
Step 6: Fine-tune and Edit
Finally: don’t be afraid of a rewrite. This is where the magic of songwriting happens!
When you put on your editor’s hat, be ruthless.
Is each line, each word as strong as it could be? Can listeners relate to it? Do you have a unique angle, or are you simply rehashing something that’s already been done?
You’re looking for clarity – ensuring coherence in both lyrics and the emotional impact that you originally set out to give.
You’ll rarely keep the first draft of your lyrics intact once you start experimenting with melody. Expect some back-and-forth, revision of both until they work together seamlessly.
Once you have something tangible, play your sad song aloud for yourself and then for others.
Look for feedback on how the song made them feel. The whole piece is put together and then the components: the lyrics, the melody. It may take a few drafts to get it right.
Step 7: Record your demo
So, you’re ready to record your demo. But what is a demo?
A demo (short for demonstration) is a rough draft or sample version of a song that gives listeners an idea of what the final song will sound like.
Whether you have a set up at home or go out to a studio, be sure to make the best demo of your sad song you can.
Know that if you set up a home recording studio, you might have to go through a technology learning curve and be willing to embrace experimentation while you get your setup the way you want it.
However, the alternative is recording in a professional studio. If you’re not comfortable recording on your own or you don’t have the right recording equipment or space, you may get a higher-quality recording in a professional studio.
Curious to learn more about studio recording? Check out my post on How to Set up a home recording studio.
At the end of the day, your song doesn’t need to be perfect though, just as close to radio-ready as possible.
Grab the tissues because you just wrote your latest sad song!
Every Storm Runs Out of Rain
Music is a conduit for our emotions as songwriters and an outlet for our listeners.
But have you ever heard of the concept of listening to sad music while sad? We talked earlier about gathering inspiration for your latest sad song but be careful to not spend too much time in a darker mindset.
Reliving some experiences and discussing heavy topics repeatedly, regardless of your purpose, can be damaging for your mental health. Remember to take a break during the writing process and between writing sad songs!
And if you’re serious about a songwriting career, I can guarantee you’ll be writing more.
That’s why it pays to know how different sad songs are, and the common pitfalls songwriters stumble into while writing them.
So keep these tips in mind during your next writing session. Your emotional writing game will be stronger simply because you now know what to watch out for.
And if you want more, be sure to check out the whole songwriting process in my free guide How to Write a Song: A Beginner’s Guide to Songwriting.