So, you’re looking to write a sad song.
Or maybe you have the song written, but the chord progression just isn’t right.
Well, try as you might, sometimes trying to be original doesn’t help you find the right accompaniment to your melancholy melodies. Sometimes, you’ve got to rely on the tried and true.
Here you will find multiple common sad chord progressions that’ll stir your listener’s emotions. Just be sure to put your own spin on them! I’ve made some suggestions below.
Note: All chord progressions are relative to the key. So, “I” (uppercase) would be the root major in a major key, and “i” (lower case) would be the root minor in a minor key. If you don’t get it now, don’t worry – you’ll see what I mean.
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I – V – vi – IV
Example: C | G | Am | F
In some ways, this is one of the “happier” of sad chord progressions represented here.
But there’s just something about it. Even though the first chord in the progression is a major, putting the vi third in order somehow draws out a touch of melancholy.
And it seems to have that effect no matter what speed you play it at, which is quite surprising. Oftentimes, sadder songs are slower.
You’ll probably recognize this progression from a song like John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” (although there’s a little more to that song than just this progression).
This might not be the right chord progression for the ultimate sad song. But for songs that express a feeling of longing, and a bittersweet emotion, this one is worth a try.
I – vi – IV – V
Example: C | Am | F | G
Now, in a way, this is just going to seem like a reordering of the same chord progression you’ve already seen. And in some ways, it is!
But that is the magic of music, that you can cover a lot(and I do mean a lot) of ground with just four chords. Try mixing up the order of these four chords yourself and you’ll see exactly what I mean.
You might recall this specific progression from the chorus of The Penguins’ “Earth Angel.” And, upon first listen, it does have a pinch of sentimentality to it.
But there is a difference between “sad” and “slow,” and ballads like “Earth Angel” are often just slow with a happy chord progression (same thing could apply to The Pussycat Dolls’ “Stickwitu” – not sad, just slow).
So, beware of playing this progression fast! It’ll just sound like a punk song, which all tend to sound kind of happy.
If you want this chord progression to come across as sad, then be sure to pick your moments and play it slowly. Think about how the progression fits in with the rest of the song before employing it.
IV – V – vi – I
Example: F | G | Am | C
This is a dramatic sounding chord progression with plenty of potential. And in some ways, it takes after the chorus in Mr. Big’s “Take Cover.”
The suspense comes from the first chord in the progression being the IV rather than the I, and it naturally wants to resolve to the V. But it becomes suspenseful once more as you change to the vi, and the I followed by the vi, instead of sounding like a major chord, just sounds like an inversion of the vi (and it sort of is).
For guitarists, there’s something quite magical you can do with this chord progression in the key of E. You can leave the first two strings open the whole time, so if you’re playing fifth string roots, it makes the IV chord a sus2, followed by a sus4, m7, and finally a big 5 (power chord).
You can also keep the chords, and layer a constant harmony over top (like a repeating riff), and that can produce an emotional effect too.
Like I said, it’s a chord progression with a lot of potential, and it sounds suspenseful in all the right ways.
IV – V – iii – IV
Example: F | G | Em | F
Mariah Carey’s chart-breaking 2005 hit “We Belong Together” was written entirely around these four chords – well… technically, three.
No, the song does not have any other chords in it, and the basic rhythm carries throughout. But we’d be lying if we said we didn’t think it had some merit
What’s most interesting about it is that the I and vi chords never appear in the song. So, even though there’s no question what key this song is in (C major/A minor), it never resolves. And that provides the backdrop to Mariah’s passionate, virtuosic vocals.
I think this progression has a lot of potential, especially considering you could mix and match it with other chord progressions, even those on this list!
Now, don’t forget. Adding some harmony to these chords can make them “pop.” The IV works great as a maj7, and the iii as a m7.
Experiment, and see if you can come up with your own variations.
I/3 – VIsus2 – V – vi
Example: C/E | Fsus2 | G | Am
This is a magical little chord progression that wouldn’t quite work without the C/E slash chord and the Fsus2 suspended chord. It tends to sound plain without them, and it doesn’t evoke the same level of emotion.
The E bass note is basically anticipating the ascending line that goes E, F, G, A, which packs an emotional punch. The progression wouldn’t sound the same without the first slash chord.
The progression starts to sound even more mature if you turn the V into a suspended chord, and the vi into a m7.
I’ve used this chord progression in a couple of my songs (especially since they were quite similar thematically). And I thought I’d discovered something relatively unique.
To my surprise, this is basically the same chord progression used in the chorus to Don Henley’s “New York Minute” except with different timing. In that song, the VI chord basically lasts two measures while the V and vi chords get half a bar each. Also, the guitarist carries the bass note from the slash chord into the VI chord briefly before moving up the bass line.
This is a good “anticipatory” chord progression, and it tends to evoke similar feelings at most speeds (probably because of the sophistication of the chords). I don’t think it would work in an upbeat rock song, mind you.
i – VI – III – VII
Example: Am | F | C | G
Though quite simplistic, this chord progression is one of my favorites. The basic structure of Eagle-Eye Cherry’s “Save Tonight” relies on this progression.
Played slowly, it tends to create a melancholy feel over which a powerful melody can be sung.
In an upbeat context, this progression turns from sad to serious. When you have a message that you want to hammer home in your song, this is not a bad sequence of chords to explore.
It is a little trite, though, so it can’t hurt to avoid “zombie” chords. You know, the same old stock chords you’ve played a million times (on the guitar it would be three-note open chords with no added harmony, and on the piano, it would be triads with a root bass).
With this progression, you can turn the i chord into a m7, the VI into a maj7 or add9 chord, the III tends to sound good as is, but the VII could become a sus4 (or you could quickly shift between a standard major and sus4).
There are obviously many other ways of spicing up a chord progression like this, so be sure to spend plenty of time exploring.
i – i/7 – IV/b4 – VI
Example: Am | Am/G | D/F# | F
This one might seem a little odd at first. But try playing it. You’ll probably immediately recognize it as The Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”
So, what’s going on with this chord progression?
Let’s ignore the slash chords for just a second. You end up with Am, Am, D, and F. Now, this is a little odd, because the iv chord would generally be a minor chord in the key of A minor – in other words, a Dm.
Well, the best sounding chord progressions aren’t always within the realm of what one might consider “normal.”
But the main reason the Dm is a D here is because of the chromatically descending bass line (minus the G#). It’s going A, G, F#, and F. And this tends to create a lot of suspense. Chicago’s “25 or 6 to 4” follows a similar progression, except with a V chord at the end (that’s a whole other story).
Although chord progressions can’t be copyrighted, this one should certainly be employed carefully. It would be a good idea to put your own spin on it, and if you want it to be as dramatic as “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” you will probably want to play it slowly or at a mid-tempo pace.
By the way, this is a great chord progression to solo over too!
i – VII – IV – IV
Example: Am | G | D | D
This progression probably looks like a simplified version of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” But you’re also probably still wondering, “what’s the deal with the D major anyway?” Obviously, the “right” chord in key would be Dm.
Well, music theory is a funny thing, as there are many ways to explain this. But perhaps the simplest explanation is that it’s borrowing from the parallel major key (in the key of A, the IV chord would be D).
This chord progression is the underpinning of Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game,” which has an exotic, mysterious feel to it. Isn’t it magical that he gets away with using such a simple chord progression to convey such deep emotion?
This chord progression does sound good at just about any speed, except when you play it faster. At higher tempos, it certainly loses its mysterious and exotic quality. It starts to sound more like a Lynyrd Skynyrd jam session (which is not a bad thing).
So, don’t abuse the progression. But if you use it wisely and creatively, you can certainly evoke powerful emotions with it.
i – VII/1 – VI – V7
Example: Am | G/A | F | E7
Speaking of Don Henley…
This chord progression is the essence of The Eagles’ “I Can’t Tell You Why.” And here’s a little trick – moving from the V7sus4 to V7 in the final measure is far more effective than just going straight to the V7.
The second chord in the progression – the slash chord – is quite important. A lot of people hear a different chord there, but if you listen carefully to “I Can’t Tell You Why,” the bass note doesn’t change during that measure. So, you want to create a subtle, colorful G/A voicing, perhaps using three notes (like A, G, and B).
Aside from that, just experiment and see what you can come up with. Playing the chord progression exactly as is can be thrilling, but with some changes to the rhythm and voicings (and even harmonies), you can do some interesting things with this.
The V7 at the end, at higher speeds, will give you a bit of a Spanish flavor, so if that’s not what you’re after, beware.
Slower tempos are good. Putting your own spin on it is even better.
Sad Chords Progressions, Final Thoughts
Don’t forget – chord progressions don’t have to be limited to four bars – they can be much longer! Nor do they need to fit nicely into symmetrical beats and patterns. You can shorten some chords, lengthen others, create transitions between each, and more.
The above is just a starting point. There are plenty of other chord progressions out there (you’ll notice we didn’t even touch the ii or vii° in the above progressions, although the vii° isn’t often used in songs).
What you layer above the chords also makes a big difference. So, pay attention to your melodies, bass lines, and any other harmonies you include in the song, because they can all contribute to the feel of the song.
Enjoy your writing!