Songwriting Basics: How to Create a Sad and Heartbreaking Chord Progression

Music is an incredibly powerful access to emotions. As an experiment, try watching the most moving scene in any movie you can think of with the sound muted.

Without music, the emotional impact of the scene will be greatly reduced. So when it comes to conveying raw emotion, such as rising joy or devastating grief, there are various tools that composers can use in a soundtrack to heighten all of those emotions in the viewer.

The same sort of thing can be put to good use in your composition. If you start to write a sad song, the lyrical content is only half of it. You’ll also want to use a musical backdrop that reinforces the desperation of an intense breakup, the desperate memory of a long-lost love, or the loss of your keys at the back of the couch. It’s okay, I know, it happens to all of us at some point; it will be fine, I promise.

Either way, the point is that in order to make a sad song really sad you need a properly sad chord progression, so we researched one or two of the saddest chords known to mankind. These – when combined with the saddest of all keys (according to Spinal Tap, i.e. D minor) – will make anyone want to shed an empathetic tear.

OK, so this might be a little extreme, but you get the idea: if you’re looking for a certain vibe in your song, you need to know how to best create it, so read on while we outfit you with a few. tears. shaking tools.

Songwriting Basics: How to Create a Sad and Heartbreaking Chord Progression

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Step 1: You would think that for a sad chord progression, the majority of chords would be minor, right? Well, not necessarily. With the right mix of chord shapes, major chords can play a surprisingly big role in making things really sad. Let’s illustrate this by starting with the undoubtedly the happiest chord of all: C major (C, E, G).

Songwriting Basics: How to Create a Sad and Heartbreaking Chord Progression

(Image credit: Apple)

2nd step: We can have C major as the first chord, then add one or two of the minor diatonic chords of the key of C major. Here is the complete set of diatonic triads, all arranged in order, constructed by stacking alternate notes of the C major scale. Interestingly enough, of the seven chords in the diatonic ensemble, three are minor chords.

Songwriting Basics: How to Create a Sad and Heartbreaking Chord Progression

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Step 3: So let’s add one of these diatonic minor chords to our major tonic chord to try and create a sad mood. Let’s try from C major to A minor. It’s a conventional diatonic movement that occurs in millions of songs. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with it, but it’s not particularly sad – we can be a lot more heartbreaking than that.

Songwriting Basics: How to Create a Sad and Heartbreaking Chord Progression

(Image credit: Logic Pro X)

Step 4: Things often seem sadder if the listener expects to be “happy”. So try to start your progress with a major chord and then – wham! – hit them with a non-diatonic minor chord – a chord that is not in the key, which they would not expect. To get an idea of ​​what this sounds like, try a major tonic chord – C major, for example – to the iv minor chord, Fm.

Songwriting Basics: How to Create a Sad and Heartbreaking Chord Progression

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Step 5: The switch between major / minor also works backwards. Take Samuel Barber’s first chords Adagio for strings, one of the most plaintive and haunting pieces ever written. We start on an Ebm7 chord with a high melodic note in Bb, which suspends on a shift to an underlying F major chord, before dropping a semitone at A: the major third of the F chord. .

Songwriting Basics: How to Create a Sad and Heartbreaking Chord Progression

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Step 6: There are two special types of non-diatonic chords that make excellent heartbreaking, the first being the half-diminished or minor seven flat five (m7b5) chord. This is done by taking a regular minor seventh chord – here I’m using a form of D minor 7 (D, F, A, C) – and flattening the fifth by a semitone, doing D, F, Ab,
C – Dm7b5.

Songwriting Basics: How to Create a Sad and Heartbreaking Chord Progression

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Step 7: The m7b5 chord has a special kind of fiery and heartbreaking quality. A quick way to shape one is to play the root note of a minor triad, find its minor third, and then build a minor triad from that third’s note. So to get a Dm7b5, play the root note of D, find the third of D minor – F – and play an F minor triad on the root of D. Result – Dm7b5.

Songwriting Basics: How to Create a Sad and Heartbreaking Chord Progression

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Step 8: The m7b5 is a great heart-breaking chord to add to a progression if that’s the emotion you’re trying to convey. Let’s try it out in a major key, rooted in the minor chord ii. In the case of the key of C major, this makes it a Dm7b5 chord. The change from C major to Dm7b5 is a similar move to our C> Fm change from step 4, but with a D in the bass below the Fm.

Songwriting Basics: How to Create a Sad and Heartbreaking Chord Progression

(Image credit: Logic Pro X)

Step 9: Now let’s focus on our second form of non-diatonic chord – the # IVdim chord. It is an easy item to assemble. Find the fourth degree of the major scale of the key we are in and frame the major diatonic IV chord which uses it as the root. So in the key of C major, that would be an F major (F, A, C) chord.

Songwriting Basics: How to Create a Sad and Heartbreaking Chord Progression

(Image credit: Logic Pro X)

Step 10: To make our #IVdim chord, all we have to do is increase the root note by a semitone, keeping the rest of the chord shape – the A and C notes – intact. This gives us F # dim (F #, A, C). Combined with our tonic C major chord, this brings a really nostalgic and nostalgic character to our progression, which now takes the form C> F # dim> Dm7b5> C.

Songwriting Basics: How to Create a Sad and Heartbreaking Chord Progression

(Image credit: Logic Pro X)

Step 11: Here is a minor diatonic progression which, in the form of Roman numerals, is written i> VI> III> VII. In the key of D minor, this translates to Dm9> Bb> F> C. Even though three of those four are major chords, it has a slightly tragic, still contemporary vibe. Sliding a dominant A7 / C # chord towards Dm helps make things even more miserable.

Songwriting Basics: How to Create a Sad and Heartbreaking Chord Progression

(Image credit: Logic Pro X)

Step 12: Our final progression this month is also in the key of Dm and features a chromatic, descending bassline that never fails to evoke a sense of melancholy. We have Dm> Dbaug> F / C> Bm7b5> Gm / Bb> Dm / A> Abdim7> A7. The chords are enhanced by a melancholy superimposed bell melody (indicated in red). Anyone have a handkerchief, (sniffles)?

Professional advice

Become emotional

Quite often, it is not necessarily the chords themselves that are sad, rather it is the movement between two particular types of chords that evokes the feeling of sadness. By using slightly more exotic, non-diatonic chords, we are able to convey slightly different nuances of emotion. Rather than just being happy or sad, we can use them to convey more subtle undertones of sadness, like nostalgia or disappointment for example. Try playing with different combinations of major and minor chords, m7b5 and #ivdim to see what emotions you can create.


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