Top Sad Songs of All Time

Music encompasses our innermost expressions. That includes contrasting moods and feelings such as happiness, loss, sadness, disappointment, pleasure among many. It shouldn’t come as a wonder therefore when most artists tend to express their grief through the songs they write. It is most likely the most effective outlet for all the pressure they have had to deal with.

Some of the saddest songs in the history of music are centered on themes ranging from breakups, divorce, unhealthy addictions, discontentment, confusion to the death of loved ones. Most of these songs have succeeded in evoking feelings of sadness and empathy among its listeners. The list below features some of the saddest songs ever written. However, before delving into the list of the top sad songs of all time, let’s take a moment to shed some light on why people love listening to sad songs.

Why Do We Like Sad Music?

It is amazing to note that while people strive to avoid feelings of sadness and negativity in real life, they tend to be drawn closer to songs that evoke rather sad emotions. We find that some of the world’s most loved songs are actually based on certain sad events and evoke melancholic feelings. Perhaps, it is the sense of connection we gain from realizing that not only us, but songwriters and all other humans experience moments of gloom that keeps us hooked to these songs.

For instance, if we listen to a song like Adele’s Someone Like You, you can understand or imagine how difficult it would be for the singer to see the person she loves marry someone else. If the listener has ever been in such a situation or witnessed a close relative go through a similar story, the connection is even deeper.

James Blunt’s You’re Beautiful could easily make you empathize with the artist for falling in love with a person he may never be with.

A song like Miss Atomic Bomb could get you feeling the pain of losing the one you love out of a mere misunderstanding or jealousy.

The Beatles’ Hey Jude evokes a feeling of grief knowing that the subject of the song is going through a lot of pain as a result of his parents’ divorce.

It is easy to think it a silly idea that people actually enjoy sad songs, but if you take a closer look at your own favorite songs, you would realize that most of them are laced with a lot of heartrending emotions.

But why then do people like sad songs?

There are many theories that attempt to explain this intriguing phenomenon. One profound explanation would be the “Sadness Paradox”. People mostly choose to listen to songs which reflect their emotional state of mind. For instance, if they are in a happy mood or are experiencing thrilling emotions, it is likely that they would opt to listen to upbeat happy songs that will enhance their emotions. At the same time, when people are experiencing some sort of emotional distress, they are likely to listen to sad music. They do this however not to increase their own sadness, but as a means of relief.

In a study conducted by the University of Limerick, a group of researchers surveyed about 65 adults on instances where they opted to listen to sad music as a response to a negative experience. The motivation and reasons retrieved during the survey were recurring. Most people reported selecting sad songs because it triggered their memories and they could easily relate to the stories or messages presented in the lyrics and melodies of such songs. They also noted that sad music helped them to do the following:

  • process their own emotions, put their feelings into perspective
  • provide a means of distraction which eventually helped them to move on from that experience

In this case, they were able to express their own emotions through the words and melodies sung by a different person, hence reassuring themselves that they are not alone.

Another theory is that sad music is enjoyable to most people not just because it evokes certain feelings, but because it is emotionally engaging in itself. They have the ability to engage a person’s interest through the events or stories that often vividly describe the drama that takes place in another person’s life. This can be best explained through the “semantic pointer theory of emotion” developed by Tobias Schroder and Paul Thagard. In their view, human emotions are based on neural processes, perceptions and cognitive appraisals. If a person listens to a sad song, they are likely to experience a similar physiological reaction that will occur when they themselves are in that same situation; however the cognitive appraisal here is different. This is because you are aware that the unfortunate situation happening in the sad song is not about you, thus it is not a personal threat. There is a sense of relief knowing that your current situation is not as unfortunate as those projected in the song.

One could also simply deduce that most of the people who enjoy sad music are empathetic in nature. To justify this stance, we can further agree that when people make it a point to empathize with the adversity of other people as expressed in songs, they receive some kind of reward in the end. The reward being the biochemical release of endocrine, which lessens the pain felt when a person experiences a real loss. Hormones such as prolactin and oxytocin, which stimulate feelings of warmth and comfort, are also released in music-induced sadness because it is not a real life event.

Most Popular Sad Songs of All Time

Having looked at the reasons why the average person loves listening to sad songs, let us now take a look a the list of the famous sad songs ever released.

LOVE WILL TEAR US APART BY JOY DIVISION

Joy Division released this track in 1980 as a single. The track was released a month after the lead singer committed suicide. The song was brought out to the public as a tribute to the singer. It is said that his marriage was challenging and might have been a reason for the lyrics.

I’M SO LONESOME I COULD CRY BY HANK WILLIAMS

The song, which Elvis Presley described as the saddest song he had ever heard, was written by Hank Williams, an American Country musician regarding his first wife by name Audrey Sheppard. The song was released in 1949 as a single.

NUTSHELL BY ALICE IN CHAINS

Nutshell was released by Alice In Chains in 1994. The track was part of their ‘Jar of Flies’ album. The song is believed to be about the realities and journey of life. It talks about the possibility of a person finding themselves alone at a point in time in life.

SAM STONE BY JOHN PRINE

John Prine released the song Sam Stone in 1971 as part of his John Prineville album. The track when listened to carefully speaks about addiction of Veterans from Vietnam War to hard drugs even though Vietnam is not mentioned in the song.

HOW SOON IS NOW BY THE SMITHS

How Soon is Now‘ was released by The Smiths in 1985. It is a part of the album ‘Hatful of Hollow’ as well as their iconic ‘Meat is Murder’ album. Morrissey (who was the band’s lead singer) is known to be the reason behind the lyrics of the song. It talks about his shy personality and how he has to deal with it.

BLACK BY PEARL JAM

An American band by name Pearl Jam released ‘Black’ in 1991 as part of their ‘Ten’ album. The song was written by Stone Gossard and talks about the challenges involved in letting go of relationships and people; especially the ones truly loved or valued.

HEAVEN KNOWS I’M MISERABLE NOW BY THE SMITHS

This track by The Smiths was released in the year 1984 but a single version was released about four years later. The song talks about the narrator’s misery no matter what he does. He talks about being miserable even after getting what he thinks he wants.

HE STOPPED LOVING HER TODAY BY GEORGE JONES

Country musician George Jones released the track in 1980 as part of his ‘I am what I am’ album. The song was written by Curly Putman and Bobby Braddock. The song talks about a lover keeping mementos from his old love affair with hopes that he will get his love back into his life.

SOMETHING IN THE WAY BY NIRVANA

‘Something in the Way’ was composed by Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain. The song was released in 1991 as part of the album ‘Nevermind’. The lyrics are about the homelessness and struggles of the writer as a young teenage boy who had run away from the home he knew to survive on his own.

CATS IN THE CRADLE BY HARRY CHAPIN

Harry Chapin released this track in 1974 as a part of his ‘Veritas & Balderdash’ album. The song was written based on his wife, Sandra Gaston’s experience regarding her ex husband and his father. He also mentioned that the song also talked about his relationship with his son.

EVERYBODY HURTS BY R.E.M.

R.E.M. released ‘Everybody Hurts” back in 1993. It was part of the bands ‘Automatic for the People’ album. The song is believed to be mostly written by Bill Berry who was the drummer. The song is one of encouragement for people who feel lost and depleted and feel like giving up.

HURT BY NINE INCH NAILS

The band recorded the song as a part of their album ‘The Downward Spiral’ and released it in 1995. Generally, the song is believed to be about depression, addiction and pain when life seems bleak and a person struggles; wondering if life truly is worth living

TEARS IN HEAVEN BY ERIC CLAPTON

This classic, composed by Clapton was about the loss of his son Conor who was just four years old. The song came out in 1992 as part of the album ‘Rush: Music from the Motion Picture Soundtrack and Unplugged’. His son died after falling through the 53rd floor window of an apartment.

DISORDER BY JOY DIVISION

Joy Division’s ‘Disorder’ was released in 1979 as part of the album ‘Unknown Pleasures’. The song talks about Ian Curtis who was the lead singer of the band. It is believed that the lyrics are about his experience with epilepsy and surviving the challenges it posed to him in his everyday affairs.

SHE’S LOST CONTROL BY JOY DIVISION

The track was released in 1979 by Joy Division as part of the ‘Unknown Pleasures’ album. The song focuses on a lady Ian, the lead singer met who was suffering from epilepsy and how it affected her work life. She eventually died after suffering a seizure.

HOMESICK BY DUA LIPA

‘Homesick’ written together by Dua Lipa and Chris Martin of Coldplay was released in 2017 as part of the album  ‘Dua Lipa’. According to Lipa, the song is about her missing home and how sacrificial it is to be away from home and the people you love.


ISOLATION BY JOY DIVISION

Joy Division released ‘Isolation’ in 1980 from their album ‘Closer’. The song seems to talk about how comfortable one becomes after being alone for a long time even though it’s tough at the beginning. That being said, many believe the song is purely about anxiety brought on by extreme loneliness.

BLUE HOTEL BY CHRIS ISAAK

The track was released in 1986 by Chris Isaak as part of his self titled album. The song when well listened to talks about emotions. It talks about being lonely. From the narrator’s own words, we hear how his loneliness makes life much harder to live.

TRANSMISSION BY JOY DIVISION

The song ‘Transmission’ was released by Joy Division in the year 1979. Initially, it was part of the band’s album ‘Joy Division’ but was recorded again as a single not long after. The song is believed to be about people who follow the media blindly without being sure of what they hear or see.

DANCING ON MY OWN BY CALUM SCOTT

Calum released this track in 2018. The song was a product of his ‘Only Human’ album. The lyrics center on how a person feels when they lose a significant other via a breakup and how horrible it feels to see them with another. The track was written by a lady named Robyn.

FIX YOU BY COLDPLAY

The song ‘Fix You’ was brought to the world by Coldplay. It was released in the year 2005 and was on their album ‘X & Y’. Chris Martin wrote the song for his wife at the time by name Gwyneth Paltrow when she lost her father. Via the song, he was assuring her he’ll be there for her.

ATMOSPHERE BY JOY DIVISION

In 1980, ‘Atmosphere’ was released by Joy Division as a single. ‘Atmosphere’ is a super haunting song that appears to deal with the collapse of a relationship. It sheds light on how a person feels when their partner abandons them after the relationship goes sour.

PURPLE RAIN BY PRINCE

The song ‘Purple Rain’ was recorded by Prince with the help of the band ‘The Revolution’. The song is on the album ‘Purple Rain’ and was released in 1984. According to the singer, the song talks about the end of the world when the red bloody skies and blue skies merge into a purple rain and being with the one you love during this time.

THE BOY WITH THE THORN IN HIS SIDE BY THE SMITHS

The Smiths formally released “The Boy with the Thorn in His Side” in 1985 from their iconic ‘The Queen Is Dead’ album. According to Morrissey, the thorn in his song refers to the music industry and how he had to deal with rejection and doubt from them.

BE ALRIGHT BY DEAN LEWIS

The track was released by Dean Lewis in the year 2018 and belonged to the album ‘A Place We Knew’. Dean explained that the song is about relationships he’s been through as well as those of his friends.

BEYOND BY LEON BRIDGES

‘Beyond’ came out in the year 2018 as a product of the ‘Good Thing’ album. Leon wrote the song regarding a girl he was seeing. According to him, he had met a lot of women and yet this woman was one of a kind. He wrote this song when she told him she loved him considering no woman had ever told him she loved him.

FROM THE DINING TABLE BY HARRY STYLES

This song by Harry Styles was released on his self titled album in 2017. He talks about his broken relationship. If you pay attention, you realize that he wants her back but is tired of being the one to reach out every time. He needs her back badly but can never get her because she’s with another man.

DEAD SOULS BY JOY DIVISION

‘Dead Souls’ was released by Joy Division in the year 1980. It is assumed that the track talks about the struggles of hanging onto the past issues of life and how they hold a person from living their best life. It is also believed that he’s talking about his struggles with schizophrenia and epilepsy.

HEARTBREAK WARFARE BY JOHN MAYER

American musician John Mayer released this track in 2009. He wrote the song himself and it was a part of his ‘Battle Studies’ album. When you listen to ‘Heartbreak’, you realize that it is about two people too conceited to show each other how they feel so resort to causing each other pain to see how the other reacts or feels.

I’LL NEVER LOVE AGAIN BY LADY GAGA

Lady Gaga released this in 2019 from her album titled ‘A Star is Born’. The song was used on the movie ‘A Star is Born’. It’s about the singers’ love that was lost. In the movie, she is frustrated and greatly depressed after her husband commits suicide and how she couldn’t say goodbye to him.

ILYSB by LANY

‘I Love You So Bad’ was released by LANY and talks about love. It explains the emotions of the writer and how intoxicated he feels with her love. He reminisces on the memories they have created over time and begs her to stay with him. The song was featured on the album ‘Make Out’ and was released in 2015.

I’M ON FIRE BY CHROMATICS

Chromatics released the track ‘I’m On Fire’ in 2006.There is an assumption that the song talks about the singers’ feelings for someone he can’t have because she is already with someone.

PALACE BY CAM

The song ‘Palace’ was put out in 2018. It centers on lost love. The palace is the singer’s heart and every room opens up to an old relationship.

PAST LIFE BY MAGGIE ROGERS

Maggie released ‘Past Life’ in 2019 from her ‘Heard It in a Past Life’ album. The lyrics are apparently about the change one feels when their old life seems to be coming back to them. This past is not a good one, it is a negative one.

RIGHT NOW by HAIM

HAIM released this song under the album ‘Something to Tell You’ in 2017. The song is about unrequited love. It is a sad track talking about a relationship where just one side is interested and the other is not.

SELF CARE BY MAC MILLER

In 2018, the song ‘Self Care’ was released by Mac Miller from his ‘Swimming’ album. The track deals with the rapper’s personal life and his emotions. It’s also assumed that he is talking about life after his ex. He died in the same year the track was released. A drug overdose was the cause of his death.

SOMEBODY ELSE BY THE 1975

The 1975 and their management released this song in the year 2016. ‘Somebody Else’ is believed to be about feelings regarding ones love moving on after a breakup. The song explains that this hurts even though the relationship is over.

THE SCIENTIST BY COLDPLAY

This song is by the band Coldplay and was released twice; in 2002 in the United Kingdom and 2003 in the United States. ‘The Scientist’, according to Chris Martin, talks about ruined relationships he’s had. He explained that no matter what happens in life, feelings are what get you the most.

HOW WILL I KNOW BY SAM SMITH

Sam Smith released the track in 2014 from the ‘In the Lonely Hour’ album. On ‘How Will I Know”, he talks about the uncertainties in relationships. Smith sings about how difficult it is to know if someone genuinely is into you or feels something for you at all. This sadly scares the singer and makes him hide his feelings.

WHEN WE WERE YOUNG BY ADELE

Adele sang this song and had it released in 2015. It can be found her ’25’ album. According to her, the song is about how people feel when they grow older and meet people from their past; people they have had different stories with and how it feels.

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