Sad chord progressions carry a lot of emotional content and provide the backbone to compositions across genres. While it’s normal to want to create something fresh whenever a songwriter picks up their instrument, knowing common chord progressions is a huge head start. Artists can still embellish frequently used progressions and make them their own without necessarily starting from scratch every single time. A little bit of music theory can go a long way!
What Makes a Chord Progression Sound “Sad?”
Music, and the emotion it conveys, is highly subjective. Be that as it may, a progression in a minor key or heavy on minor chords tends to sound the most melancholy to listeners. A similar effect can be achieved with diminished chords, 7ths, and other extended voicings. You’ll quickly notice, too, that sad chord progressions actually contain many major chords. Part of creating a sad sound is the juxtaposition between “happy” and somber tones.
Major vs Minor Chords
Major and minor triads both consist of a root, a third, and a fifth. The only difference between them is the third above the root. In a major triad, the third is a major third above the root. In a minor triad, the third is a minor third above the root. Another way to explain this is that the third of a minor triad is a half-step lower than the third in a major triad.
7 Common Sad Chord Progressions You Can Use on Any Instrument
Now let’s have a look at a number of chord changes using the key of C major as a reference. It’s worth noting that chord selection alone doesn’t dictate emotion — things like tempo, melody, lyrical content, instrumentation, and more all contribute. But these sequences will certainly steer your music in the right direction if you’re looking for sad chord progressions.
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This sequence is often called the “’50s progression” or the “doo-wop progression.” It was a staple of popular music throughout the 1950s and early 1960s. Playing through the chords by themselves isn’t the saddest thing you’ve ever heard, but with the proper melody, it can be utilized to great dramatic effect.
Here we have a rearrangement of the progression above. Overall, this sequence has more of a bittersweet sound and is another frequently heard cycle in popular music. Used appropriately, songwriters can develop a unique combination of emotions using a very simple progression.
The I-V-vi-IV is another quintessential pop progression. It’s obviously been used thousands of times with great commercial success, and while not the most original chord progression ever, it’s an adequate place to start if you’re trying to write a catchy tune.
This familiar chord progression derives from “Pachelbel’s Canon.” Now for a quick history lesson. The oldest surviving manuscript of the song dates between 1838 and 1842, while it’s believed to have been written between 1680 and Johann Pachelbel’s death in 1706. The composition laid dormant for centuries until its eventual resurrection in the late 1960s. Today, its legacy endures at weddings and funerals.
One way to interpret this sad chord progression is as a I-I-IV-V with the second chord substituted for the iii. In the key of C, we can think of Em as a substitute for C in that they share two of the same notes (E and G). Swapping a minor for a major lends itself to a more melancholy sound than straight hammering away at major chords.
If you’ve been following along, you’ll probably start to see how chord sequence is just as important as chord selection. Shuffling the order of the same four chords can produce wildly different results. Trying mixing things up in your own compositions to see how creative you can get with standard pop chord progressions.
Many music theorists will argue about the analysis and labeling of this chord progression. It notably lacks a root, implying that it must, at some point, resolve to the I. However, if we consider the point of rest Am, then it might be most appropriate to relabel the sequence in the key of Am (VI-VII-v-i) as opposed to C (IV-V-iii-vi). I’ll stop the tangent there and conclude that this chord progression is colloquially referred to as the “anime progression” — and it sounds awesome!