Why Do We Love Sad Songs?

My sister recommended I listen to this story on PRI’s “To the Best of Our Knowledge.”

The show looks at sad songs from classical, rock, jazz, and country music.

Program 10-12-12-B: “Why Do We Love Sad Songs?” originally aired on Dec. 12, 2010.

They break up the hour-long program into three segments: Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, a little psychology linking speech and music, “pop” music (which includes rock, jazz, and country), and Bach’s Cello Suites.

As far as the Adagio goes, I will always be reminded of a time I helped write public service announcements. It was for a domestic violence shelter and our boss joked that every script should have that song as the background music. The other thing I think about is probably the most famous scene from Platoon.

At one point, while talking about the structure of the Adagio, they said the melody plays through three times, at which point it reaches a climax. And then silence. Those six seconds may be the loudest part of the song. And from there, the piece is just exhausted with itself and is trying to find an end. But it never quite resolves, so Barber finds a way to give it a sort of benediction.

That exhaustion and lack of resolution is what I think make Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” a truly sad song.

They also talk a little about speaking sadly, which roughly follows the same tone patterns as music. Once, long ago, I wrote a song (albeit, not a sad one) by recording the one line I had and looping it over and over. Eventually, I built my melody around what I heard in my own natural speech patterns. I had forgotten about this, so when I heard this research, it was like hearing something from a dream I had once. I think this, as opposed to making the words fit the melody, is a better way to write songs.

They also mention that adding cello to a rock song is a sure-fire way to make a sad song sadder. I admit that one song I am working on has cello for the first two-thirds of the piece in an effort to emphasize its emo-indie roots.

As I post, if there is a sad song, I will tag it back to this post. If there is some sad song you want me to talk about, or if you want to do a guest post, just let me know.

Among the other music they cite as being sad, they include:

  • “Greensleeves,” which, although minor, I do not think of as sad. Whether you are singing about the Lady Green Sleeves or Jesus, that song brings more wonder than sadness.
  • Eric Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven,” which was certainly written at a hard time in Clapton’s life. His then four-year-old son, Connor, fell 53 stories from a window. But the song itself does not make me feel sad.
  • Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” which, although not an up-beat song by any means, I feel is more hopeful than sad. That is also how I feel about
  • R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts.” At the end of the song, Michael Stipe sings “Hold on.” What could be more hopeful?
  • A variety of country and jazz songs that make me want to listen to more of those genres.

2 thoughts on “Why Do We Love Sad Songs?

  1. Pingback: I bet it was a bumpy ride | Another American Audio-logue

  2. As of Jan. 4, 2012, the saddest song I think I have written about is Dispatch’s “Turn This Ship Around,” from their self-titled 2011 EP.

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