How to Compose Sad MusicDo you want to make sad music? Meaning music which you can describe with keywords like: emotional, sad, tragic, depressing, and so on.

Your Adventure in Sad Music
Hello, my name is Mike, and I am a music composer. Just. Like. You. And in this course you are going to learn my best guidelines, tips and secrets on how to compose sad music.

In this course you will:

  • Learn the Guidelines & Secrets of Sad Music
  • Master the Sounds & Colors of Sad Music
  • Get Practical Live Examples of Sad Music

Are you ready to start your journey now? Are you excited to learn the secrets of how to compose sad music, and to craft and shape your emotional story curve in your music compositions. Then take action! Take this course, and begin your learning adventure in sad music composition, right now!

The Styles of Sad Music
Music is great and complex language, which means that for every genre and style, there are lots of variations. And sad music is not an exception. There are different types and levels of sadness you can create and shape with your music. Let me give you some examples:

  1. Depressing Sadness
    This style of sad music is like ‘Feeling Lost in Darkness’. Basically feeling extremely down and depressed, like there is no hope, and everything is just bad. A good example of this style is: Mad World by Gary Jules
  2. Mellow Sadness
    This style of sad music is also feeling down, but not as deeply as ‘depressed sadness’. More like having ‘one of those days’ where everything seems to be grey and boring, and perhaps lonely. A good example of this style is: The Departure by Max Richter.
  3. Tragedy Sadness
    This style of sad music is the most strong type of sadness. The type that makes your heart ache, and your tears flow. Like a loss of a loved one, or simply a sense of complete misery. A good example of this style is: The Main Theme from Schindlers’ List.
  4. Hopeful Sadness
    This style of sad music is like a feeling hope hope in the dark. Like things are bad right now, but you sense a shimmer of hope. A good example of this style is: Hallelujah by Jeff Buckley.
  5. Beautiful Sadness
    This style of sad music is very emotional, and with a sad tone, but your tears are created from the sense of sheer beauty, not sorrow. It is based on a very strong and intense beautiful and sad tone. A good example of this style is the build-up and transition ending of: One Day from Pirates of the Caribbean.

As a music composer, you have the amazing power to create the overall mood of your music, and shape the colors of it with harmony, expression, instrumentation, playing styles, and so much more. You are going to learn all of these ways during this course, so let’s continue your learning journey in the next video, right now!

The Guidelines of Sad Music

1 – Minor Harmonic Language
The main foundation of all emotions in music is based on the harmonic language you use. This means the scale you use for your music, the intervals for your melodies, harmony lines, as well as chord progressions. And basically the focus should be on minor. Meaning a minor scale, with mainly minor chords and harmonies, and lots of use of minor intervals in your melodies. But you can also add some light tension by using suspended chords as intermediary chords, but then resolving them to a minor chord again. And don’t be afraid to add the minor 7th every now and then as well. You can of course also use major chords and intervals, but use them more sparingly, and briefly. So again, the focus should be on a minor harmonic language in all aspects of your track.

Here’s an example of a simple chord progression for sad music:
Fm – Fsus2 – Cm – Bbm – Bbm7 – Cm7- Cm – Fm

2 – Slow Tempo
For any type of music you want to feel emotional and down, you want to use a slow tempo. My guideline for tempo in music is always the human heart rate. Because both music and your heart rate is measured in beats per minute, or BPM for short. And the great part is that they match very nicely with the emotional energy of music. Meaning that a high tempo like 160 BPM will work great for dramatic action music. And also why most dance music and upbeat pop music is in the 120-140 BPM range. Because when you dance, this is probably the range your heart rate will have.

Now let’s apply this concept to sad music. For example: when you feel down and depressed, you are probably just sitting or lying down. And that means your pulse is probably around 60 BPM. So a tempo of your sad music somewhere in that 50 – 80 BPM is a good starting point, because it will match the emotional energy in tempo, with your current heart rate.

3 – Let your Music Breath
This means using rhythms sparingly, and instead focusing on longer chords, harmonies and melody notes. And think twice about how and if you use drums and percussion. It also means you should use silence and gaps of air in between notes to let the sad emotion sink in. Because pauses means a reflective vibe. And long notes, use of air and silence, will make your music more introspective and deep. When I say adding air and silence, I don’t mean sudden interrupts btw. Let me give you a practical example:

Let’s say you are playing a chord, harmony or a melody on a piano…release the keys in between the chords or phrases, while holding the sustain pedal, to let it calmly ring out.

4 – Use Emotional Instruments
Emotional instruments are instruments that are full of character, emotion and expression. A bonus is if they have that kind of fragile and delicate tone. A golden rule here is therefore to go for solo instruments first, instead of sections. Because solo instruments will have a much more clear character and expressive tone. For example, a vibrato performed on a solo violin will always be more clear, than a 15 violin section playing the same part. This is because sections will blur notes, articulations and expressive playing styles into each other. A solo instrument will also always sound more delicate and fragile than a section.

Here’s a list of examples of instruments you can consider for writing sad music:

  • Intimate Piano (ex: soft piano)
  • Mellow Keys (ex: rhodes or mellotron)
  • Solo Strings (ex: violin or cello)
  • Solo Woodwinds (ex: clarinet or flute)
  • Pad Synth (great for atmosphere)
  • Saxophone (more on the mellow side)
  • Solo vocals (with sad lyrics)

5 – Focus on Softer Sounds
Generally it will work best if you use softer sounds for sad music. Simply because they are more relaxing, and with a mood that will make you feel even more down. By soft I mean a rounder and smoother sound, without any harsh attacks or piercing frequencies. There is an important exception to this guideline, but we will get to that later. Now let me give you a list of practical examples of soft sounds that will work great for sad music:

  • Soft Piano (ex: felt piano)
  • Soft Strings (ex: con sordino)
  • Warm Bass (ex: acoustic bass, analog synth bass)
  • Acoustic Guitar (ex: slow strumming, or arpeggios)
  • Smooth Vocals (ex: low volume, low to mid range)

6 – Add Expressive Articulations
Emotion in music is also very influenced by how the instruments and sounds are played. A really expressive articulation is performing a vibrato on a long note, which instantly adds a stronger emotion. Of course, not all instruments can be used for vibrato. And some can perform a really strong vibrato. Some of the most expressive instruments are bowed strings (like a violin), saxophones, and of course vocals. So vibrato is incredibly useful. But also various types of legatos. A legato is a smooth transition from one note to another, basically gliding in between the two notes. Which can be done in different speeds, from a fast legato, to a long portamento or glissando. Other expressive articulations that you can use for sad music to add emotion, depending on the instrument, are tremolos, trills and bends. And of course you can also add emotion by using dynamic changes to create crescendos, diminuendos, or any other dynamic curve. A crescendo means building strength in loudness and intensity, and a diminuendo is the opposite.

Here’s a list of expressive articulations you can use for reference:

  • Vibrato (can be very strong)
  • Legato (from fast to long portamentos)
  • Bends (great on guitar etc)
  • Trills (will add energy)
  • Tremolos (will add suspense)
  • Dynamic Curves (ex: crescendos/diminuendos)

7 – Play in the Lower Dynamic Range
Most sad music is about a low energy level, to reflect your emotion of feeling down. Listen to sad songs with vocals, and you will find that most sing in a lower volume, with lower intensity. An example is ‘Mad World by Gary Jules’. So if you want your sad music to have this ‘feeling down’ kind of mood, then you should have a guideline to play mainly in the low to mid dynamic range for your instruments and sounds. Meaning playing more softly, and rarely go above the middle range of dynamics. From ppp to mp is the musical term, but in MIDI this means from velocity values of your notes on let’s say piano, between 1 and 64. And consider that dynamics measured in MIDI velocity goes from 1 to 127. Now, you can of course go higher in dynamics, but if you do, it will mainly be with the leading instrument to add more intense emotion. Also remember that with some software instruments you control the dynamics not with the velocity level, but with a continuous CC-controller, which will most often be your MIDI keyboards MOD-wheel. Sometimes you can also use an expression pedal, or knobs/faders on your MIDI Controller to change the expression level over time, which is basically similar to dynamics. Here’s a quick reference list of dynamic range control for your music:

  • Attack Dynamics per Note (how hard you press your keys)
  • Sustain Dynamics based on CC (Most often CC1 = the MOD-wheel)
  • Expression Level based on CC (CC11, mapped to fader/knob/pedal)

8 – Add Loneliness in Your Arrangement
Sad music, and emotional music overall, usually has a less dense arrangement. Meaning fewer instruments playing at one time, and generally less things going on overall. Sad music often feels a bit naked and exposed, which makes you feel more vulnerable. So when you choose your instrumentation, and build your arrangement, consider adding that loneliness factor from using a more minimal approach.

Here’s an example of instrumentation for a sad music arrangement:

  • Bass (for depth)
  • Piano (for harmony)
  • Solo Strings (for expression)
  • Solo Vocals (for main emotion)

9 – Go Louder & Higher for More Intense Emotion
Now, while the main guideline for sad music is to keep the dynamics and intensity in the lower range to get the “feeling down” vibe. There is an exception to this rule, in case you want to create that more intense tear-jerking type of sadness. And that is to ramp up the dynamics to way louder for the leading emotional melody especially. And not only that, but also go higher up in range, and preferably in a transition phase to get that build of intensity even stronger. You will hear this “go loud, go high” technique used a lot in film music for those extra emotional tear-jerking moments. It is important that this technique is also used in combination with other emotional boosters, like a strong vibrato, minor harmonies etc. In essence: play more intense and louder, go higher, add stronger vibrato, and focus on minor harmonies and long lyrical notes…and you will get that tear-jerking intense emotion for your sad music.

10 – Take Advantage of Expressive Motion
Emotion in music can also come from adding more movement and motion. You can do this in so many ways, but dynamic movement is one the most fundamental. Meaning creating expressive curves in dynamics, meaning changing loudness and intensity over time, to create movement. You can also add expressive motion by changing vibrato strength and speed over time, especially on your leading melody. And you can also create expressive movement with your voice leading. Meaning the progression of each individual line in your melodies and harmonies in relation to each other. For example, using transition notes in your voice leading that has some extra tension, can add some great expressiveness in the movement of your harmonies. Or simply using the power of direction (either up or down) in range.

So to sum up, take advantage of expressive motion in:

  • Dynamics (with curves)
  • Vibrato (changing strength and speed)
  • Voice Leading (movement that adds emotional tension)
  • Direction (Going up or down in range)

Sad Music – Examples and Analysis

Do you remember in the beginning of this course, where I mentioned 5 main types of sad music? I also a practical example of a music composition in each style, and we are now going to analyze some of the main aspects of each of these tracks. So, my friends. It’s time to dive into the deep end of sad music, right now!

1 – Main Theme from Schindler’s List

  • Key of D Minor for an Emotional Tone
  • Lonely Woodwinds Intro with Am-Dm, finishing with A
  • Main Chords: Dm – Gm7 – C7 (sus4) – F
  • Minimal Arrangement for an exposed/lonely feeling
  • False Hope from the Major V chord (A)
  • Extremely Emotional Solo Violin Main Theme
  • Lots of Big Melodic Leaps which adds Tension
  • Many Sus and 7th Chords for added Expression

2 – The Departure by Max Richter

  • Key of C Minor for an Emotional Tone
  • Main Chords: Cm – Fm/C – Dm7(b5) – Cm – Eb – G
  • Major V at the end of the progression adds Sophistication.
  • The Minimal Piano Arrangement creates a Lonely Vibe.
  • The Fast Arpeggio makes the Track Feel less Depressing.
  • The Soft Piano Sound adds a kind of Veil like Rain or Mist.
  • The Mix includes a lot of close-up “Character Noises” which adds an Intimate Vibe.
  • The Melodic Piano theme is very sparse, which creates a thoughtful mood.

3 – One Day from Pirates of the Caribbean

  • Key of D Minor for an Emotional Tone
  • Arrangement: Soft Intro – Action – Lonely Middle – Emotional End
  • Main Chords: Dm – Bb – F – C
  • Major Chords in a Minor Key creates that Bittersweet Mood
  • A lot of Suspended Chord Voice Leading for Hopeful Tension
  • Arrangement Build Up and Crescendo for Tear-Jerking Beauty
  • High Range Soaring Strings for More Intense Emotion
  • Ends with Lonely Flute + Tremolo Strings Swell

4 – Hallelujah by Jeff Buckley

  • Key of C Major for a Hopeful Tone (C – Am7 – F – G)
  • Tritone harmony in the Intro adds a Strange Magic type vibe
  • E7-chord at the end of the verses adds a light twist
  • The Minimal Naked arrangement adds a Lonely Feeling
  • Vocals are very Gentle and Whisper-like creating a Sweet Overall Mood
  • Dynamic range is huge on the vocals which adds amazing expression
  • The mix of major sound with sad vocals creates a bittersweet sound

5 – Mad World by Gary Jules

  • Key of F Dorian for an Thoughtful Tone (Fm, Ab, Eb, Bb)
  • Super soft piano creating a cloudy vibe
  • Incredibly depressing vocals (both performance and lyrics)
  • The arrangement is very minimal and naked, giving all focus to the sad vocals
  • Very low dynamics, creates an almost whisper-like mood
  • The chorus “mad world”, adds a Bb7 plus ambient shimmer

Live Creation of Sad Music
Alright, now that we have learned some great guidelines for making sad music, and also analyzed famous music in this style, let’s use these powers in action. I am going to compose a track live, showing you behind the scenes, and explaining my creative choices as I go. But first, let’s write down the creative vision for this project:

Sad Music Composition – Creative Vision

  • Very Emotional = Minor Key and Chords
  • Downer Mood = Slow Tempo
  • Gentle Character = Low Dynamics
  • Lonely Feeling = Minimal Arrangement
  • Highly Expressive = Solo Melodic Lead
  • Dreamy Atmosphere = Deep Reverb

Alright, let’s begin composing sad music! =)