Music can evoke powerful emotional responses, including sadness. Here, we explore some of the most iconic examples of sad music.
Tom Waits’ heart-wrenching melodic melancholia ranges from orchestral orchestral melancholia to gravel-voiced tales of drunken debauchery; thus making his 1976 Small Change album opener, “Opening Track,” an ideal example.
Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Movement
Tchaikovsky opens the second movement of this symphony with an oboe playing an emotively mournful tune, signalling Tchaikovsky’s melancholic state from its opening bars. Life has tired you out,” wrote the composer; and its musical expression captures this emotion vividly. Memory brings back sweet moments from life when blood was warm and life satisfying but there are painful ones as well, marking irreconcilable losses which cannot be undone; Tchaikovsky regrets his past but doesn’t want to start over from scratch again.
Tchaikovsky’s Elegie is an iconic example of his melancholic style, featuring folk-like melodies and chorale-style passages, all tied together with his Fate motif – similar to Beethoven, however Tchaikovsky prefers more fluid harmonic procedures rather than strict harmonic ones.
The third movement is an ode to long lost love. It begins with an orchestra playing Russian folk songs before strings introduce a more romantic melody with a waltz feel and the oboe sings an emotive lament about losing someone special. This section reflects Tchaikovsky’s own struggles with women like widow Nadezhda von Meck and Antonina Milyukova; whom he would later dedicate this symphony in tribute. Clearly this relationship was the source of much of his depression.
Verdi’s ‘Rigoletto’ Duet
Rigoletto comes home from his job as the Duke’s jester to find that Gilda has locked herself inside their house, trying to convince her it is safe to come out into the world again. In Act 2, Verdi’s opera, Rigoletto comes back home where Gilda has hidden herself away. Attempts at convincing her are futile; finally he convinces her it is better for both of them if she comes out as soon as possible.
This duet opens with an unusual musical structure: its rhythm is interrupted by the slow tempo of its first part; then speeds up, only to slow back down again into the same slow rhythm from before! There’s even a bit of an echo from clarinet which makes it seem as though Duke has never heard this music before!
Verdi’s success lay in his ability to use music to characterize major characters: from Duke of Mantua with infectious melodies that depict his carefree attitude and Gilda with lovely, lilting tunes that suggest her innocence and vulnerability, through Sparafucile assassin music which turns tense and dark to Rigoletto’s haunted and restless music showing Monterone’s curse on him directly.
Bob Dylan’s ‘Boots On The Ground’
Dylan’s self-titled debut album was met with mixed reviews in March 1962. Many were initially taken aback by his singing voice–a mix of cowboy lament, Midwestern patois and obvious nods to Guthrie that initially caused some to question its authenticity; but quickly established himself as a rebel with a cause who dared challenge existing pop music conventions through songs that featured politics, social commentary and literary references that defied them all.
By the time of his next album release, Highway 61 Revisited, Dylan’s sound had further developed. The songs featured country and blues music that celebrated American roots such as Medgar Evers’ murder as well as farming and mining communities across the U.S.
One of the album’s standout tracks was Boots of Spanish Leather, a song about bittersweet separation between lovers. The lyrics echo those of Girl From the North Country and many believe this track to refer to Suze Rotolo who was Dylan’s lover during early 60s. Boots of Spanish Leather has since become a classic; its themes of regret and change resonated universally – it even became his hit! This acoustic ballad with hauntingly beautiful sound serves as an inspiring reminder that life doesn’t always go smoothly and that we must learn to live together despite our differences!
The Shangri-Las’ ‘Past, Present & Future’
Though their 1965 single, “Remember (Walking In The Sand),” was both a US number one and UK top 20 hit, American girl group The Shangri-Las were dealt an unfair deal from their brief stint in the spotlight. Making very little money and even relinquishing their right to use their name at certain points. Their final single on Red Bird Records was “Past, Present and Future”, an emotional piece about teenage tragedy which featured spoken chants over lush near classical piano music from Mary Weiss that featured lush near classical piano music over an unconventional performance by Mary Weiss who read her monologue dramatically over lush near classical piano music!
Queens, New York-based group The Girl Groups was one of the greatest purveyors of teenage melodrama. Mixing innocent charm with darker themes such as dead bikers and doomed love affairs – delivered through infectious handclapping harmonies or operatic-esque recitatives by its members who also wrote songs with Brill Building veteran Shadow Morton and Jeff Barry; unfortunately though constant touring, legal disputes, lineup changes, and the British Invasion proved too much and by 1969 they had completely dispersed from view.
Tom Waits’ ‘By The Time I Get To Phoenix’
Tom Waits is known for his dark performances that bring to life his music’s dark characters with unrivalled intensity and power – almost making you smell stale beer and feel sweat on your hands while listening. Here is one such track.
Yesterday evening (June 17), at his Phoenix gig to launch his Glitter and Doom tour, Tom Waits launched into a haunting ballad that brought chills. A dirge of mourning, regret and resentment as well as hopelessness; Waits sings of being broken by life before reaching rock bottom himself.
This track features ambient tones, drums, piano, strings, and woodwinds which combine for an impressively unique sound. Sonically this song can be likened to that of Navy Blue, Moor Mother or Slausone Malone; but with an emotional tone distinctly its own. A song of deep sorrow yet with slow, low energy. Listen here.
Elvis Costello’s ‘Falklands War’
Townes Van Zandt was an expert at crafting sad songs that didn’t just acknowledge emotions but rather felt them with you, leading you into their depths and helping you process them. His ballad of drug abuse and family disintegration was marked by an infectious vocal hook and some striking Booker T organ work that gave it its dramatic punch. While tragic in appearance, its message was of nobility over lifetime suffering.
Robert Wyatt had first recorded this song a year before; Costello’s version on 1983’s Punch the Clock is my personal favourite, however. With haunting piano chords and bass notes that sound like timber hulls swaying beneath your feet, its haunting piano notes create an unforgettable record of empathy and compassion; its ending with its faded synth strings and weeping violins is truly heartbreaking; making this one of pop music’s greatest sad songs ever.
Bob Marley’s ‘I Shot The Sheriff’
Bob Marley was tragically cut short by malignant melanoma in 1981, yet his legacy of music continues today. “I Shot the Sheriff” resonates with our current political climate of social unrest and clashes between individuals and authority figures such as police officers or health authorities.
At this point in their careers, Peter McIntosh and Bunny Livingston had left The Wailers. This happened shortly after their 1975 album Natty Dread’s release; its tracks depicting political tension between Jamaica’s People’s National Party and Jamaica Labour Party which often escalated to violence.
Natty Dread was nonetheless a success for The Wailers. Their collaboration with Lee Scratch Perry on tracks like “Soul Rebel” and “Duppy Conquerer” cemented their fame further while drawing the notice of Chris Blackwell of Island Records who licensed some of their Coxsone records – Blackwell recognized The Wailers as reggae’s best hope of drawing in rock audiences, leading Eric Clapton’s version of their song “I Shot the Sheriff” which became a #1 hit and helped introduce them to an even wider audience than before!