Top 10 Songs Made With Sad Chord Progressions

Sad chord on guitar

Sadness is relatable. With an outpouring of sorrow, a songwriter relates and connects with the listener through a sad song. That’s why I love listening to and creating sad songs.

I find writing a sad song cathartic. It’s a release that comes from the heart.

But good sad songs are more than just pouring your heart out. So, what knowledge do you need to write sad songs? 

Beyond feels, guitarists have trusted techniques to bring out the emotion of the lyrics. None more so than sad chord progressions.

In this article, I’ll show you the tricks of the trade. You’ll discover sad chord progressions that’ll help you write the songs to connect with your listeners.

What is a “sad” chord?

A sad chord is a set of notes formed to make a chord with sad timbres. If you want a chord to pull at the heartstrings, then a minor chord is the first place to turn to. Minor chords are the tried and tested sad chords. Yet, 7th and sus chords also resonate with an air of sadness. 

What is a Sad Chord Progression?

In songwriting, a progression is a succession of chords. A sad chord progression is a set of chords with wistful characteristics.

There’s no hard and fast rule when creating a sad chord progression and they come in different forms. A harmonic progression in a minor key offers an instant sad timbre. But, a progression in a major key that incorporates minor chords can also have an air of sadness.

Don’t forget the power of sad lyrics. A chord progression in a major key without a minor chord can still sound sad. Mournful lyrics can produce bleak voicings that change the feel of the chords. 

Nashville Number System

Before I list the top sad chord progressions, here’s something you need to know. Ever wondered about Roman Numerals next to chord progressions?

What you’re seeing is the Nashville Chord System. Before you run at the thought of music theory, let me explain in simple terms.

The Nashville Chord System is a shorthand way to remember chord progressions. Musicians use this system to remember chord progressions and bass lines on the fly.

As a songwriter, this numbering system will help you transpose chord progressions into different keys. The change will help you find a more suitable key for your vocal range and can change the feel of a famous song chord progression to make one of your own.

This system is also an easy way to look at the chords that will fit in the key of your song. So, if you’re trying to find which chords work best, looking along the scale will narrow your search.

You can also try turning major or minor chords into 7th or sus chords to create more richness to your music. In this system, for minor chords, the Roman Numerals are in lower case, while the 7th chords carry a 7 next to the number. 

You’ll find a Nashville Number System chart below for you to refer to throughout the list of the top 10 sad chord progressions.

Nashville Number System for Guitar Chords

Top 10 Sad Songs and Chord Progressions

1. Bob Dylan – Blowing’ In The Wind

(C – F – G) (I – IV – V)

Check the chords here.

Let’s begin with a simple progression. Playing the 1, 4, then 5 chords is pure simplicity. But, if it’s good enough for Dylan, then who am I to argue. Dylan uses this progression to impressive effect while listing deep existential questions in the lyrics over the top.

Transposed to G major, the chords are G as I, C as IV, and D as the V chord. With these major chords, you’ll discover lots of songs like Ring of Fire by Johnny Cash and Leaving On a Jet Plane by John Denver.

Not forgetting with a simple key change, Bob Dylan uses this progression once again with Knockin’ On Heavens Door.

Turns out, you can create sad songs with the simplest chords. Let this progression be your cornerstone as a budding songwriter.

2. The Beatles – Let It Be

(C – G – Am – F) (I – V – vi – IV)

Check the chords here.

From Dylan to the Fab Four, we’re straight in with the big hitters. This progression incorporates a minor chord bound to stir emotion. It’s a chord transition that you’ll find in a large number of sad pop songs.

Using the same chords and starting with C Major is Bob Marley’s No Woman No Cry. Safe to say, this progression has proven to stir emotions.

When transposed into the key of D, the progression translates to D, A, Bm, G. A sequence used for U2’s With or Without You. Moreover, it’s the only four chords used throughout. So, get this one locked down. Whatever the key, you’ve got the foundation for a sad song to flourish.

3. The Verve – The Drugs Don’t Work

(C – Am – Em – F – G – C) (I – vi – iii – IV – V – I)

Check the chords here.

The Drugs Don’t Work uses similar chords to the previous sequence. So why include this? Well, it’s a great song. But beyond that, it also proves that using the Nashville Chord System has benefits. The Drugs Don’t Work has a chord progression including 6 guitar chords in the scale. So by embellishing simple progressions, you can create something original. 

4. Ben E King – Stand By Me

(A – F#m – D – E) (I – vi – IV – V)

Check the chords here

Considered a jazz sequence, the popularity of this chord progression soared throughout the 50s. There isn’t a doo-wop artist who hasn’t tried their hand at it. Think Earth Angel, Blue Moon, and Unchained Melody.

But its popularity is yet to diminish. From Every Breath You Take to I Will Always Love You and the more modern Just Like A Pill. They all use the 1, 6, 4, 5 chord progression. If you want versatility, I find this chord sequence covers most genres.

5. Eagle Eye Cherry – Save Tonight

(Am – F – C – G) (i – VI – III – VII)

Check the chords here.

I’ve used this chord sequence in songwriting more times than I care to think. Whether reserved for an impactful chorus or the intro of a song, it’s a progression so natural and effective it’s become a go-to of mine.

But it’s not just me who relies on this sequence. Eagle Eye Cherry uses it skillfully throughout his hit Save Tonight.

6. Wiz Khalifa – No Sleep

(C – F – Am – G) (I – IV – vi – V)

Starting with two strong major chords, there’s a solid hook. The minor chord draws the listener further before the final major chord offers closure.

It’s a hook with storytelling qualities allowing the writer to tell tales of sadness over the top. Used in Skyscraper by Demi Lovato and Summer of ’69 by Bryan Adams, there’s no genre out of bounds.

7. REM – Everybody Hurts

(D – G – Em – A) (I – IV – ii – V)

Check the chords here.

In the key of D Major, Everybody Hurts, shows once again sad chord progressions don’t need to be in a minor key. By repeating the I and IV chord throughout the intro and verse, it’s simple yet effective. For this reason, it was the first song I learned to fingerpick.

But the key (excuse the pun) is the ii chord in the chorus. The E minor moves the song in a sadder direction to great impact. Listen to the sample to hear the effectiveness of an E minor in the chorus.

8. Hank Williams – I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry

(E – E7 – A – E – B7 – E) (I – I7 – IV – I – V7 – I)

Check the chords here.

Let’s mix it up with some 7th chords. 7th chords incorporate the 7th note from the root note into a triad. I always find 7th chords add tension to a sequence. Perfect for drawing in the listener.

With I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry, there’s a gospel-like progression, dawdling tempo, and downright sad lyrics. Add them together, you’ve got the musical equal of heartbreak.

I find this progression works best for slower tempos. Increasing the tempo loses some sadness.

9. Leonard Cohen – Suzanne

(E – F#m – E – G#m – A) (I – ii – I – iii – IV)

Check the chords here.

Now for one of my favorite artists of all time, Leonard Cohen. He’s the master of creating sad songs. His dark, low vocal timbre becomes the focal point of heart-wrenching emotion.

But it’s his sad chord progressions that underpin the somber vocal voicings. In Suzanne, by returning to the I chord, there’s suspense and repetition to the sequence.

10. Adele – Rolling In The Deep

(Cm – Gm – A# – Gm – A#) (I – v – VII – v – VII)

Check the chords here.

Would any list of sad music be complete without an Adele number? After all, Adele is a modern-day maestro of the sad song.

The chord progression has a sweeping flow. Rolling in the Deep returns to a minor chord throughout the progression. It’s an earworm that maintains its sadness even at higher tempos.

Although the predominant instrument is the piano. I like to play this with power chords on the guitar. With a capo on the 3rd fret, the chords translate as Am, Em, G, Em so it’s pretty straightforward.

Sad Songs Most Common Patterns

When searching for and then playing sad songs, I found certain emotional chord progressions were prominent. I’ve numbered these progressions in relation to the Key of C.

  • I – IV – V (C – F – G)
  • I – V – vi – IV (C – G – Am – F)
  • vi – V – IV – V (Am – G – F – G)
  • vi – IV – I – V (Am – F – C – G)
  • I – IV – vi – V (C – F – Am – G)
  • I – vi – IV – V (C – Am – F – G)

The best songwriters of our time have established these chord progressions mainly using 4/4 timing. It’s the common time signature for contemporary music in the Western world.

But, it’s not set in stone. I’ve changed different chord progressions into a 3/4 time signature for a waltzing quality. By changing the time signature, emotional chord progressions get a new twist.

When using these progressions, something else you can play with is the tempo. Adjusting the BPM by the slightest measure will change the feel. In major keys, at higher tempos, progressions lose some sadness.


Now you have all the sad chord progressions, it’s time for you to practice your songwriting skills. All you need to do is make them your own.

There’s no need to reinvent the wheel with chord progressions. Songwriters have used the most common ones for years. You’ll find similar chord progressions on everything from vinyl records to the latest releases on streaming platforms.

How do you make them your own? Different strumming patterns, tempos, and time signatures will add unique personalities. Once you’ve got a flowing sad chord progression, all you need is the mournful lyrics to create the ultimate sad song.