Why does music make us sad?
Music connects with us emotionally and stimulates our brain by inducing the release of dopamine, which studies have shown to increase pleasure. This can partly explain why some people feel an urge to dance or cry after hearing music.
Musical interval's effect on the brain
Studies have shown that dissonant intervals (two notes played at the same time) produce a sensation of discomfort and displeasure, while consonant / harmonic intervals (two or more notes played together) create more pleasurable sensations.
The sadder the song, the more likely it will be composed with musical dissonance. Intense consonant chords are generally found in joyful pieces of music. A combination of consonance and dissonance is used to create tension and complexity in pieces moving toward an emotional climax. This structure is common in sad songs since they often build up before down at their most powerful point.
The amount of variation in a song
Happiness is characterized by high arousal and low variability, while sadness has low arousal and high variability. Sad songs vary between slow and fast tempos, soft and loud volumes, etc. Slow tempo with an irregular rhythm is typically common in sad music. A combination of bland lyrics over complex melodies may be used to create the impression of deep complexity that characterizes many sad songs today.
What are 'sad chords'?
Minor chords and the diminished fifth. A 'sad chord' is a triad in minor keys and is especially used when composed with a repeating sequence of notes that do not fit into the major scale. If you play all the white notes on a piano starting from F or F# and ending at G, you will get an F minor chord (F-Ab-Bb).
A common pattern for sad chords includes playing Ab-C-Bb in 4/4 time over 3 times. This produces an Fm9 chord. The last note, Bb, does not belong to the key of F major used in this song. These noninherent notes are called "chromatic" notes because they only exist outside of what is considered "the key". There are three different kinds of minor chords: natural, harmonic, and melodic.
- Natural minor scales only contain notes from the key they are in.
- Harmonic minor scales also include a seventh note that is one semitone higher than the sixth note (found in major keys).
- Melodic minor scales raise the fourth and sixth notes by one semitone when ascending and descending respectively.
The diminished fifth is an interval between two notes with half the frequency relative to each other as all other intervals between consecutive scale degrees in a chromatic scale. It has strong negative connotations because it represents imperfection, disharmony, or incompleteness. A diminished chord can be played by playing two natural minors next to each other, with the root note moved down by one semitone.
- Major chords
Yes, traditionally if the song is composed with minor chords it sounds sad, but let`s take a look at major and minor C scales:
C- minor (all notes moved down by one semitone)
C - major (all notes moved up by one semitone)
A sad chord is a chord where the third note is either four semitones lower than normal, or diminished. It creates an unstable sound that can fit well to make the song sad and then resolve into other chords that convey happiness. A major chord was composed with so-called major triad - 1st,3rd, and 5th- degree notes of the major scale.
- Major 7th chords
So, this is a chord that consists of 1st, 3rd, 5th, and 7th-degree notes - a perfect resolution from a "sad" minor chord.
- Diminished chords
Diminished triads are made up of two superimposed minor thirds stacked in a diminished pattern. These chords can be almost enharmonically equivalent to dominant seventh chords with flattened fifth/seventh-degree notes.
Diminished 7th chords sound sad because they have an unstable sound which can resolve into other chords that convey happiness. In fact, diminished triads may lead the ear toward the tonic note by creating a Klang or clash with its doubled root. They also create an acoustically incomplete dominant seventh chord when played together as part of a root motion followed by a second diminished seventh chord moving in the opposite direction.
- Dominant 7th chord
This chord includes one note that is found in the major tetrahedron (major scale) and another one that is different. This dissonant sound can lead to a resolution as it does in music theory - resolving from C7 to Gmaj. It tends to sound more sad than happy, but it might depend on context.
The sound with this chord combination is so strong that it overpowers any other chord in the 'key' of C. The notes are called dominant because they have a certain harmonic function in the diatonic C-major scale, which is to resolve to either tonic.
- 7Sus chords
if it sounds weird at first, try to listen more carefully. Under 'sus' we mean 'suspended' and it helps your guitar stay in tune. One can make suspended chords by keeping a note as it is and 'suspending' the other one by letting its second degree move up by one semitone.
How can you make your song more emotional?
When you already know all those chords, compose a song with them, or just put them together in the same key and enjoy how they sound. This helps you understand music theory better and is a great way to improve your skills as a guitar player.
Chords progression will make your song sound emotional. And that`s why we composed 5 songs with those "ugly", sad-sounding chords! It happens because the minor key will naturally sound sadder than the major ones. But still, this is just your perception and it can vary depending on who listens to your song. Be careful with using those chords in folk songs, because they might create an "Irish" feeling that you don`t want to have.
Think about the feelings that you want to put inside your song and choose the chords that will convey it. Moreover, you should think about your listeners and how will they receive this message. Try to sing your own melodies and put some effort, because this is the key!
Make the song more dramatic with transition effects, like fade-ins and cross-fades. This will give it a more theatrical feeling. If you only have an acoustic guitar in your song, then try to put something else that creates the needed atmosphere.
If the song is sad, then just play minor chords with long notes, maybe some arpeggios. Use this for ballads. If you want to create a more romantic and sensitive atmosphere, try to mix major and minor chords in the same key. It will help you to express different feelings in the same song.
Minor chords with short notes sound more soft and tender. You can also add some arpeggios in this case.
Boxes of sounds are a nice way to describe a chord progression, so try to use different combinations. It helps you find new ideas and makes it easier for listeners to remember your song!
In most cases, sad songs are slow or medium tempo songs but you still can make them sound more dramatic by using even tempo only during intro/outro parts with minor chords played in both hands simultaneously with long notes. The most important thing here is the melody because it has to be beautiful if you want your song to touch people`s hearts!
Learn musical phrases and cadences
In case you still didn`t know about it, now is the best time to make this step. Musical phrases are numbers of bars that are needed to express different feelings, like sadness or joy. Musical cadences are the ways how music phrases end, which can be resolved or unresolved. This is something that you have to know because this knowledge will help you compose anything!
Cadences will be helpful to create a structure in your songs. Knowing how to resolve the phrases will help you build a bridge between different moods and make it clearer for listeners.
TOP-5 popular songs made with sad chords
This is probably the most famous sad-sounding song in pop history. This intro is so emotional and touching that you can listen to it for hours.
They used the Fmaj scale, which consists of F, G, A, Bb, C, and Eb chords. This scale doesn`t have an E chord which makes it sound even more emotional. Also, the chords progression is the same throughout the entire song.
Lyrics were the final element to make this song strong. If you listen to it carefully, you will be able to understand the feelings of the main character, who tries to escape from this cruel world by finding a "better place".
Adele`s Someone like you
This is probably one of the best songs for introverts who are trying to find their way out of social life. The only thing that they would need is someone who already found this "way" and can guide them! This song describes perfectly how it feels during hard times when everyone seems to abandon us.
The mix between minor/major chords creates an interesting effect that helps listeners feel what emotions are inside this song. Chords progression sounds sad throughout the whole song, but there is a tiny ray of hope in the end.
Finally, the lyrics are great, but the melody is even better! This song was played everywhere during summer 2016 and everyone fell in love with it.
Sam Smith and his Stay with Me
This song is really catching! It was composed with A minor and C major scales. It makes the song more mysterious and sad.
The lyrics are great, too! The song tells about Sam`s one-night love that was the best thing to happen in his life. He is asking for this feeling to last forever, but he knows it won`t. These feelings are so intense that they can`t be compared with anything else.
Oh well...maybe there was something better waiting behind the corner? We will never know...
Bruno Mars` When I was your man
How many tears did you drop when heard this song? It is one of the most emotional songs ever made, but it can`t be discussed in this article because it has a different style of music. Bruno Mars did a fantastic job with drums and rhythm guitar! Usually, the guitar sounds happy, but sometimes you can use it to show sadness.
Bruno used the Cmaj scale and only the C major chord. There is nothing to add, but this song doesn`t need it! Listeners will feel all the pain that Bruno felt in his life when he promises himself not to make any mistakes anymore and tell that only his girl can bring him back to life.
Interstate Love Song and Stone Temple Pilots
How beautiful was this C#maj and F#maj scale-based song! Stone Temple Pilots used a combination of major and minor chords to achieve their goals.
The lyrics are great, too! This specific subject is tied to many people all over the world. It tries to say that we need certain people in our lives who can take us away from this cruel world and find a better place with just the two of us.
This love must be strong enough to help us get through hard times when it seems like there is no way out. The same feelings were described in Coldplay`s Scientist, but this one is more optimistic and full of hope, which makes it even better than Coldplay`s song!