If you are looking to write a sad song, we are here to help. Luckily there are a handful of chord progressions that will make you cry, weep, wail, and contemplate all your relationships and life decisions. So, grab some tissues and your guitar and let's get depressed!
What Makes a Song Sad?
There are a few different answers to this question, but one of the main ones is minor chords. In general, the major lifts us up and the minor brings us down. However, we can use other chord voicings to get a low feeling, sometimes diminished and 7th chords provide the necessary vibe.
Popular Sad Chord Progressions
Example in the key of C: Am F C G
This progression is sometimes called a "sensitive female progression" as it was common in 90's alternative songs by women like "One of Us", "Building a Mystery", and "Foolish Games". But it has been around for a long time with songs like "The Passenger", and "San Francisco". It is a similar progression to the Axis of Awesome and very common.
Example in the key of C: C Am F G
The doo wop progression is well suited to both happy and sad songs, depending on the melody and singing style. It is especially a great chord sequence for reflective songs with a "happy" sad tone. Songs like "Earth Angel", "Unchained Melody", and "Stand By Me".
Example in the key of C: C Em F G
This one's for rock ballads like "Hungry Heart" and "Every Tme You Go Away". The minor 3rd is always a help when dealing with sad songs and it mixes great with the 1-4-5.
Example in the key of C: C Am Dm G
This is a common progression for jazz standards along with sad songs, as we get "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas", and "Without You" when we mix the vi and ii. If you want to write a very sad or contemplative tune, this is a great progression to pick. Sometimes the ii is replaced with the iii and used in doo wop also.
Example in the key of G: Am Am/G D/F# F
This progression may seem confusing but it would look like these chords; Am-Am/G-D/F#-F. This is the progression for "While My Guitar Gently Weeps". 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!
Example in the key of Bm: Bm A E
This one is similar to the rock I-bVII-IV, just using minors for a sadder vibe. The most popular example being "Wicked Game".
Example in the key of Am: Am G F E
This is often seen as Am-G-F-E or (A-G-F-E) and is present in songs like "I Can't Tell You Why" and "Science Fiction, Double Feature". The flamenco vibe gives it a mysterious feeling on top of being a little sad.
Example in the key of Am: Am F Em
A progression like Am-F-Em-Am makes for quite the depressing chord sequence and is used in "Requiem for a Dream".
Example in the key of C: Em Dm C
Chord progressions like this or with the IV mixed in are often used as interludes or bridges. They don't stay strong on their own for long, but add extra melancholy feelings when they are used in songs like "November Rain" and "Let's Stay Together".
Example in the key of Am: Am E7 Am G C G Am E7 Am
Of course, we can't forget La Folia, the oldest progression in western music. When played it has a medieval and courtly sound, but can easily be molded into a tune of epic sadness. Try playing Am-E7-Am-G-C-G-Am-E7-Am and you hear the sad potential!
You find more progressions (with chord diagrams for all the keys, not just C) in my complete ebook 52 Chord Progressions.
Other Ways to Make the Song Sad
You are not just limited to chord progressions, there are several different ways to help bring the mood down. Using descending chromatic notes can work; like with the famous sad trombone.
Your guitar technique will also be a little different, as you will usually not be adding in syncopation or staccato playing. Most of the time your notes will be longer and more deliberate in legato style.
Techniques like vibrato will definitely have their place, along with expressive bends. With a sad song it can often be said that less is more, keep it simple and don't play too loud.
And it's more than just your guitar playing, vocals can be a big part of making a song sad. Besides the specific mindful lyrics, you will also be making larger melodic leaps in notes when emotional parts hit. Think of all the sad songs where the singer builds to a crescendo or modulates from loud to soft to convey their feelings. If you are a really awesome guitarist you may just be able to translate a killer vocal line to your guitar.
Guitar effects pedals can also help with chorus, reverb, delay, echo, and all manner of wails and shrieks. In general, you want pedals that can add a dreamlike quality and ambience, nothing like crazy overdrive and distortion. If you use any harmonizers you will be wanting intervals and chords that are minor.
Rhythms To Try Out
It will also be helpful to use slower tempos and try out some different genres. The rhythms below are great to write sad songs to, pick a key and chord progression up above and try playing along with these grooves.
4/4 Slow Jazz Brush Groove
4/4 Slow Motown Groove
4/4 Slow Rock Groove
If you use one of the progressions above, especially those with minor chords, you will have no problem writing a sad song. That is if you remember the final pointer to writing a "down" ditty; a sad song is best written right away, when the sadness is real and raw.
The key is to not forget your music theory in the bad moment! And don't let the tears smudge the lyrics...