Sad Songs


The other day, on the BBC website, I saw the headline, ‘Are these the 6 saddest songs?’ it linked to an article which listed six pieces of music and the reasons they made us cry. Some of the songs I concurred with but others, especially The Smiths, I disagreed with. Since I read the article I have wondered why we like songs/music that provoke feelings of sadness within us and which pieces of music I would have selected.

Before I continue I should mention that over Christmas I saw a programme on the highest music making pieces of music. Top was ‘Happy Birthday’ which is still under copyright and every public performance should pay a fee to the owners of that copyright. However, amongst the top ten were two records that have been covered by many artists, but are both associated with The Righteous Brothers; Unchained Melody and You’ve lost that loving feeling. Neither appears in the BBC list or my list, although I do love both. For me, although they can stir my emotions, they do not quite have that extra element which both isolates me from others around me whilst making me aware that others share the same feelings I do.

Music is part of a shared experience. I do not want to go into a long history of how music has developed but, whereas a book is a private communication between reader and writer, music, from creation to performance, involves many people, and even those sitting alone at home listening to a recording are indirectly connected to others. Whilst many people seek life-affirming, joyful music life is not always conducive to happiness, and there is a need to acknowledge the negativity of existence; the loss, the failure, the pain which often isolates as from others. It is probably the way we acknowledge and deal with this that ultimately makes us human. I feel that we need sadness from our music to enable us to connect with the sadness of others.

Baroque music wasn’t allowed to alternate between sadness and merriment, people expected a piece of music to evoke only one emotional response. It wasn’t till later that mood switches were acceptable. However, my favourite piece of ‘sad’ classical music does not have a mood change. It is played on the instrument, which in my mind, most resembles a human figure and is the only instrumental piece I have chosen. Its subject-matter is the elegant and beautiful swan, but I don’t think you really need to know its title to feel its poignancy. Julian Lloyd Webb The Swan

One of the pieces that both the BBC and I have selected is Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah which mixes biblical references with suffering, humiliation and loss. The word, Hallelujah, is normally associated with praising God, here there is an irony to the praise which questions God’s presence in the suffering of man. The very time when a person would turn to God for support. There the words have as much impact as the music, which is quite simple. It is this simplicity which draws us in from the first chords. My personal favourite rendition is Jeff Buckley’s.  Hallelujah – Jeff Buckley

I have just realised that all the songs I’ve chosen have been written by men. Believe me it wasn’t a conscious decision and one of Carol e King’s song was even on my original list. Maybe it is the traditional expectation that men will be strong, and not speak of their pain, that, in the past, has meant their need, of an outlet through music, has been greater. I came across the next song a couple of years ago and similar to Hallelujah its style is simple. Its singer songwriter comes across as a man’s man and there is little emotion in his voice other than tired regret. Hurt by Johnny Cash

I am a big fan of soul music. It may seem strange that the black music of America gained such a large following in the working class on this side of the Atlantic, however if you listen to the music you realised their shared values. This particular song reminds me of going without in my childhood, it also mixes the voice of one of the greatest soul singer with the pathos of the horns section. It reaches inside you and, emotionally, wrings you dry. Enough said. Try a little tenderness by Otis Redding

No one, who remembers the eighties, can forget the impact this song had on them when used to accompany a film depicting the realities of a famine in Africa. It changed our perception of victims in the third world and made us ask questions of why this was occurring? I’m not sure that those questions have led to a full resolution of the problems. The song was not written to promote such considerations but has developed an identity beyond its original source. This raise the question of whether it is just the music that stirs my emotions or the memories associated with it? Drive by The Cars

Another eighties song, although there are echoes of times past and times to come within it. Wars have been fought throughout history and are still occurring now. This song focuses on the unifying experience of soldiers away from home and families, but also contains the feeling of loss, even death of comrades. Here the lyrics endow a bitter beauty to the futility of war.  Brothers in Arm by Dire Straits

Still in the eighties, my next song mixes emotional music, a clear male voice and haunting lyrics. Its subject matter is the most binding, but isolating, human experience; personal love and despair. It still evokes tears to my eyes. A different corner by George Michael

Sorry, but I can not leave this without having one female presence. This song stopped me in my tracks the first time I heard it and still has the power to do so now. Again the music is actually quite simple and the voice is amazing clear. Here the lyrics create not connection through recognition but through imagery; this is what love should feel like, this is as good as life on earth can get, this is both momentarily and eternal. The first time ever I saw your face by Roberta Flack

Maybe your eyes are still dry and you feel no connection to any of these pieces. Well, we’re all different and we have different experiences of life. Some of these songs have evoked memories within me, the stronger songs pure emotion but, for me, they have that extra element that resonates within me. I would be interested in your comments. I realise I have also listed eight pieces but, whilst I am happy to add to list, I do not want to remove any.

Please note. All music is linked to youtube video. I was unable to make Spotify work. At time of uploading all videos are present and working. A few have ads attached, annoying, but the service is free.


One thought on “Sad Songs

  1. Facebook reply It wasn’t actually a melancholy reaction I was interested in, Martin Cater although I agree both these songs evoke that. The first is a bit sentimental for my taste but that’s a personal opinion. I was looking for a deeper connection that actually, for whatever reason, brings tears to your eyes and creates an empathetic bond with song writer/singer/friend who shared it with you. I mentioned that feeling of isolation from others, which we all experience at some time, and I wondered if music was the bridge that reconnected us with others by looking at the darker side of human existence. The music/songs I selected are mainly ones, that for various reasons, acknowledge our negative emotions/experiences basically things we do not easily talk about with others. The fact that others share similar feelings makes the experience of listening to such music seemingly a universal one (although this may be limited by cultural musical differences). My last choice was both to include a female and is a song that always brings tears to my eyes, and from comments on you tube others have similar feelings. Writing here I now realise that this and the first choice are actually positive experiences; connection to the natural word and the connection of ‘idealized’ love. Otis’s song is about compassion and understanding, even awareness of someone else’s need. I’m going on a bit there, but melancholy tends to be about ‘self”, but I hoped my choice showed that these songs take us beyond our self towards helping us understanding the human condition and connecting us with others.

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