On bad days, on good days, during the changing of the seasons, when we’re depressed, when we’re happy and, sometimes, when we want a good cry, we play some sad songs.
Whether it’s “How to Disappear Completely” by Radiohead or “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” by Hank Williams, there’s something about a song making us miserable that we actually seem to enjoy.
“For most people, it’s not that easy to express when you’re feeling down for whatever reason,” said writer Adam Brent Houghtaling. “But the music does. ‘This artist is getting it across and talking to me in a way that really gets to my emotion at the moment.’”
In short, sad songs help you get through sad times and know you’re not alone, said Houghtaling, the New York-based author of “This Will End In Tears,” a new book about sad songs.
Ashley Smith listens to sad music often whether she’s happy or sad. The 24-year-old Omahan said it can be easier to identify with a singer who’s going through the same thing.
“It’s very courageous as an artist to go out there and put those emotions and feelings on the line,” said Smith, who’s also in the Omaha band Capslock Friday. “Maybe someone else can get something out of it.”
The music often has more effect on Smith than do the lyrics. Sometimes, the music can be very moving, like in her favorite sad songs, “Limousine” and “Jesus Christ,” both by Brand New.
“I could go on all day about sad songs,” Smith said. “It can really set or effect your mood.”
Generally, minor keys produce sad songs. Most listeners, and even some musicians, might not know what key a song is in, but they’ll react to how a song sounds.
Composers, on the other hand, are very much aware of what key they’re writing in and use it to affect a mood, said Scott Anderson, a music professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Minor keys and slow tempos, which both evoke sad feelings for songs, are in classical and popular music.
“Go to one of the most famous pop albums of all time — Pink Floyd’s ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ — almost the entire album is in minor keys,” Anderson said. “Then if I’m listening to Mahler’s Symphony No. 9, it’s so obvious. … When you listen to that last adagio movement, it’s wrenching.”
Some songwriters have a penchant for melancholy music, including Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Randy Newman, Bernie Taupin and Jackson Browne. Anderson says they have the ability to move people by putting their personal pain into universal terms.
“You don’t have to know the whole story about the artist or the song to identify with it,” he said.
Part of the reason we like sad music is that it actually makes us feel better.
Music with a positive feel elicits a positive response. You’d think, then, that music with a negative feel makes you feel worse, but a 2006 study in Musicae Scientiae says it actually makes you feel better.
Similarly, “fearful music was perceived as negative but felt as positive,” the study said.
When we asked readers for their favorite sad songs, they turned in dozens of responses including classics, country, pop and indie rock.
We included the best submissions and explanations of why our readers like those songs so much.
Now please forgive us while we work on a playlist of these songs and shed a few tears.
“Leaving on a Jet Plane” It made me cry at age 5 and it still gets to me.
— Kathy Steinauer Smith of Lincoln
“I Taught Myself How to Grow Old” by Ryan Adams is so beautiful, but heartbreaking. The whole “Sea Change” album by Beck is sad. Amazing but sad.
— Nick Rosenboom of Omaha
“On and On” by Wilco. So good! It’s perfect on a rainy day like this.
— Nathan Ybarra of Kearney, Neb.
“He Stopped Loving Her Today” by George Jones. It’s just one of the saddest songs. You have lost love, a life pining for that love and not moving on and then death and then the woman he loved coming to the funeral. Almost the epitome of a country song.
— Marq Manner of Omaha
“My Orphan Year” by NOFX. The amount of emotion that Fat Mike puts in a song that fast is amazing.
— Brandon Hahn of Omaha
Almost anything off of Warren Zevon’s last CD. “Keep Me In Your Heart” is killer sad.
— Royce Maynard of Omaha
“Back to Black” by Amy Winehouse. Any fan of Amy’s knows the legitimate tragedy behind her art, her life, and her death. The song is a story of two lovers who cannot or will not remain faithful. She laments “we only said goodbye with words” as if there is something more than words that can bring closure. Sad, mournful, full of longing, and the song, like the story, really has no closure, no ending, it just suggests her willingness to endlessly suffer for those fleeting moments when she has him, really has him.
— Becky Curlis of Louisville, Neb.
“Raining in Baltimore” from Counting Crows is always good for starting a bout of depression.
— Bryan Redemske of Omaha
“You Still Hurt Me” by William Fitzsimmons. Really, any of his songs.
— Jordan Johnson of Omaha
“You Had Time” by Ani Difranco. The song itself is definitely deep in the emotional world of a relationship. It is very real and relatable to many aspects of what people go through in a relationship. She really expresses her feelings, no holding back and straight to the point!
— Mary Stroede of Papillion
Gotta go with “Send in the Clowns.” I like the Sinatra version. It just strikes me as a very honest and tragic story. People who have loved each other for years, but the timing is always wrong. I’ve listened to it about a hundred times as an adult, and I still get emotional when I hear it. Plus, Sinatra just has a way of making you feel the emotion of the song. Other versions don’t hit me quite as hard.
— Sarah Wallace of Omaha
“Black Winged Bird” by Emm Gryner. Try not to be inspired. I’m a sap for sad music.
— Kevin McGree of Omaha
The Saddest from Bright Eyes
Sandwiched between Jacques Brel and James Carr in the book “This Will End In Tears” is Omaha band Bright Eyes.
The Saddle Creek Records band is widely known for frontman Conor Oberst’s occasionally warbled vocals and his heart-on-his-sleeve lyrics. The book explained the history of Oberst and the band before diving into the band’s top 10 saddest songs.
1. “If Winter Ends” from “Letting off the Happiness” (1998)
2. “Padraic My Prince” from “Letting off the Happiness” (1998)
3. “A Spindle, a Darkness, a Fever and a Necklace” from “Fevers and Mirrors” (2000)
4. “A Song to Pass the Time” from “Fevers and Mirrors” (2000)
5. “Love I Don’t Have to Love” from “Lifted or The Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground” (2002)
6. “Lua” from “I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning” (2004)
7. “Landlocked Blues” from “I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning” (2004)
8. “Weather Reports” from “Noise Floor (Rarities: 1998–2005)” (2006)
9. “Lime Tree” from “Cassadaga” (2007)
10. “Ladder Song” from “The People’s Key” (2011)
Source: “This Will End In Tears: The Miserablist Guide to Music” by Adam Brent Houghtaling
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This story originally ran in the Omaha World-Herald on Sept. 23, 2012. It’s reprinted here for Valentine’s Day.