How to Write a Sad Acoustic Song to Tug on Heartstrings


Today we’ll explore the many different musical devices, poetic devices, and songwriting tips to write a sad song.

Every musician is so different in the ways they approach invoking sadness in their music – so today instead of providing a formulaic step-by-step article, I’d like to provide a collection of tools and tricks for you to keep in mind as you follow your own path of sad songwriting.

This will go further than simply “sad chord progressions” and “sad keys”. Those are quite subjective and broad topics – so broad, that I’ll answer those now.

Sad Chord Progressions

  • I-vi-Iv-V
  • i-V-III-VII
  • i-ii°-V-i

Sad Keys

  • C minor
  • D minor
  • Eb minor
  • Pretty much any of them

You could check out this article which details the ways in which composers Christian Schubart and Marc-Antoine Charpentier describe the characteristics of different keys, you may find it helpful.

I feel strange writing those down because music isn’t that black and white (insert cheesy piano joke here). It feels very surface-level to say, “this key is C minor, and since it’s minor, it must be sad.” It’s just not that simple!

Any key can be sad or happy – the real secret lies in their chords and how you write with them.

So let’s jump into the deeper devices that you can use to make a song sad in the exact way that you want it.

1) Writing a Sad Chord Progression Using Cadences

A cadence in music can be compared to a punctuation mark in language. A cadence usually ends a chord progression, and there are different cadences to express different emotions.

Here we’ll explore these 3 cadences you can use to invoke sad or negative emotions in your chord progressions:

  • Minor Plagal Cadence (I-IV-iv)
  • Tonic to Mediant (I-iii)
  • The Deceptive Cadence (V-not I)

For quick reference, here is a chart with the diatonic chords in every major and minor key.

  • The chords highlighted in yellow are major chords.
  • The chords highlighted in blue are minor chords.
  • The chords highlighted in gray are diminished chords.

The Minor Plagal Cadence (I-IV-iv)

A minor plagal cadence occurs when, in a major key, the progression moves from a IV, goes out of key to a iv, and resolves to the I in the original key. You could also call it borrowing the iv chord from the parallel minor key.

In C, it looks like this:

C > F > Fm > C

In A, like this:

A > D > Dm > A

Usually, we’re told not to mix major and minor keys, but in this case, it plays a particular function – subverting your expectation of the IV resolving to the I and instead of taking a sadder route by moving to a minor chord before resolving.

Check out the use of the minor plagal cadence in the Jar of Hearts by Christina Perri.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HH7WXlf9WLk

                                     A

You’re gonna catch a cold

      Bm

From the ice inside your soul

  G

Don’t come back for me

Gm     D

Who do you think you are?

The song is in the key of D major, where G minor is not naturally occurring. But here it’s used anyways to pull you to a minor chord right before the tonic.

The Tonic to the Mediant (I-iii)

Another interesting thing to make your song sound dark and sad is to travel from the tonic (I) chord to the mediant (iii) chord. This cadence is more effective in a major key. The movement from the major I to the minor iii gives almost a pulling sadness feel.

To make it even sadder, try surrounding the I with even more minor chords from the key (ii and vi ). Here’s an example:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LMnPwyu-EcQ

“It Will Rain” by Bruno Mars

D                               F#m

If you ever leave me baby

D                                   F#m

Leave some morphine at my door

Em                                          Bm

Cause it’ll take a whole lot of medication

Em                               

To realize what we used to have we don’t

A

Have it anymore

Here, he uses the I-iii progression, or the tonic to the mediant (the D major to the F# minor), twice to create a despairful sadness. 

He then moves on to three more minor chords in a row (Em, Bm, and Em again) to really drive that sadness home, then jumps to the V (A major), using an authentic cadence to resolve everything back to I.

This song is in the key of D Major but is still heartbreakingly sad! This goes to show that there are ways to play around with chord movements while in major to achieve a sad effect.

The Deceptive Cadence (V-not I)

Use the deceptive cadence to make your listener feel, well, deceived… Or uneasy, cheated, or on edge. 

Our ears naturally expect the V chord to resolve to a I, but resolving to something else (or better yet, a minor chord) lets us know that the story is not yet over.

I’m going to use another Bruno Mars example because his chord progressions in his sad songs are just genius.

“When I Was Your Man” by Bruno Mars

                   F                G             C

That I should’ve bought you flowers and held your hand

                                F                   G           C

Shoulda gave you all my hours when I had the chance

                              F                            G                          Am

Take you to every party cause all you wanted to do was dance

D7                      F                           Fm                            C

Now my baby’s dancing, well she’s dancing with another man

Mars starts the first two bars of the chorus with a common IV-V-I progression, and when it comes time for the third bar, it’s what the ear expects. Instead, he throws in an A minor chord to surprise us with a touch of heartache. Also, notice another use of the minor plagal cadence in the last bar, F-Fm-C.

Use these little tricks and play around until you find something that suits your song. 

2) Writing a Sad Melody

For a sad song, you don’t want the melody to seem too cheery or upbeat. That’s sometimes the trouble with the guitar – it has a much warmer and friendlier timbre than a piano or violin, commonly used instruments in sad compositions.

Here are a few tricks to keep in mind when writing your melody:

  • Keep it slower rather than faster
  • Use descending lines and descending arpeggios
  • Don’t be afraid to venture outside of the key (travel in half-steps)
  • Use bends, slides and hammer-ons

Slower Rather than Faster

The slower your melody, the more heartfelt and emotional it is. The first song that comes to my mind with a great sad and slow melody is Wes Montgomery’s “People”. He keeps his guitar playing slow and subtle and does not take over the rhythm.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v46-riPHKvU<embed>

Descending Lines and Arpeggios

Writing a melody that mostly ascends can sound optimistic, happy, and hopeful. For a disappointed, sad, or even guilty feeling, try using arpeggios and phrases that descend downward.

Travel in Half-Steps

On your guitar, don’t be afraid to venture outside the scale. Every once in a while, throw in a non-diatonic tone by traveling in a half step away from the scale.

It can add a little more flavor and emotion to your phrase.

Bends, Slides, and Hammer-Ons

Bends, slides, and hammer-ons are incredible ways to give your guitar melody a massively wider range of expression. Bend your notes as high as you want and slide straight into notes, rather than strictly playing the melody in a strict staccato style. 

3) Writing Sad Lyrics

Lyrics to a sad song are such an important aspect. Lyrics are the first thing most listeners will pay attention to in your song, so you want to make sure they are meaningful and speak to the sensitive side of your listener. To write some heart-wrenching lyrics:

  • Write from the heart
  • Study poetry and use poetic devices
  • Study rhyming schemes
  • Analyze your favorite sad songs and take inspiration from them

Write from the Heart

The most important thing when it comes to writing emotional lyrics is making sure they are coming from a genuine place inside yourself. So if you aren’t already sad, search for a sad story or experience you’ve had and base your lyrics around those feelings.

Use Poetic Devices

Stripped down, lyrics are poems. Venture into the use of poetic devices such as metaphors, similes, imagery, and personification to paint a picture in your listener’s mind.

One of modern music’s best poets, Leonard Cohen, was a master of setting beautifully constructed poems to music. In Cohen’s song “So Long, Marianne”, for example, he uses metaphors:

We met when we were almost young

Deep in the green lilac park

You held on to me like I was a crucifix

As we went kneeling through the dark

“Like a crucifix” is a simile to express how the woman in Cohen’s life is holding onto him.

Your letters, they all say that you’re beside me now

Then why do I feel alone?

I’m standing on a ledge and your fine spider web

Is fastening my ankle to a stone

This is a profound use of a metaphor to describe how the woman Cohen is singing about has trapped him in her web and is preventing him from leaping off the ledge he’s standing on.

Study Rhyming Schemes

Rhyming has been around in music since the beginning. Did you know there are multiple types of rhymes, besides the way that “tree” and “free” rhyme?

There are end rhymes (rhyming the ending words of two lines), internal rhymes (rhyming two words inside one line), slant rhymes (ending two lines with words that are near perfect rhymes), and so many more types you can use to add some dimension to the lyrics of your song. Check out this handy guide of types of rhymes for more details.

Take Inspiration from Others

Every musician has influences and sometimes it’s good to turn to yours to get you kick-started in writing lyrics. Put on some of your favorite songs with heartache and melancholy lyrics for extra inspiration, and to overall put you in the sad poetry writing mood

4) Practice and Make Adjustments


Once you have your chord progression, melody, and lyrics nearly bringing you to tears, play the song for yourself and for others. Make any changes you see fit and be open to outside criticism and advice from others.

With these musical and poetic tricks up your sleeve, you will be able to bust out your guitar for your friends and family to serenade them with a sad song. Or, to practice at home alone when you’re not feeling the best. Whatever situation you find yourself in, you should now be able to start writing something that will tug on your listener’s heartstrings; and with enough practice, bring some goosebumps or a tear to their eye.

Celeste O'Connor

Columbus-based writer Celeste O'Connor is passionate about taking opportunities to learn anything and everything she can about music. As a guitarist and a ukulele player, she writes to help fellow music lovers and those curious about music in becoming better songwriters and listeners.

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