The Art of Sad Songs

Trigger warning: mentions of depression, suicide and death 

Since my preteen years, music has become an inseparable part of my life. Interestingly, when most people think of music, they associate it with music production, song-writing, or playing an instrument. While these processes are necessary outlets: for self-expression, healing and creativity, I think that the therapeutic calmness and inspiration that appreciating and listening to music brings is often overlooked. Besides, I believe– and feel free to challenge me– that every musician has to first experience and be inspired by the magic and warmth of hearing a song whose immaculate layering of lyrics, rhythm and beats echoes a part of their own story that they previously could not quite put into words before becoming the artist of this magic. Most, if not all of us unconsciously have songs to fit every specific, complex emotion and situation: not only happiness or sadness but moods from nostalgia, emptiness, loneliness while drunk, “feeling myself,” longing, to the peaceful feeling of watching the motions of a city...all in a soundtrack for the ups and downs of our lives as if we are main characters in our individual narratives. Our music playlists also keep our memories alive. When we find ourselves reminiscing about a certain time in our lives, the closest we can get to travelling back in time would be to listen to the songs we listened to at the time and experience it again, even just for a few minutes. 

One of the crucial ingredients of a good playlist is sad songs, because it is through sadness and the range of negative emotions it encompasses that we make the effort to reflect, discover more about what truly matters to us, and most importantly, have a clearer sense of direction in life. Wallowing in this sadness is necessary and healthy, just as long as we do not remain there. So here are my song recommendations for when you are feeling down, want a break from the world for a while, or are simply in the mood to think and reflect. 

Disclaimer: if you are struggling with your mental health, do not hesitate to seek professional help or talk to someone you trust. These sad songs are a great addition to that!

Woman staring at phone at night Photo by mikoto.raw from Pexels

Listen Before I Go - Billie Eilish 

This song depicts the feeling of helplessness and the desire for some kind of release as a result of depression, described as “a year-long headache.” I am not usually a fan of songs with such a slow melody, but the sheer amount of emotion that Billie’s raspy and soft voice conveys along with the instrumental music from the piano, synthesizer and down beats is more than enough to make the audience feel heard and understood, way more than the usual so-called “comforting” phrases such as “it will get better” or “be grateful.” From my interpretation, I think that it also deals with the internal conflict between the guilt that comes with struggling with one’s mental health and the longing for relief, hence the repetition of “sorry.” The imagery and the simple, straight-forward writing style helps put these confusing and complex feelings into words for us to make sense of them. According to Genius, a website that provides interpretations to song lyrics, Billie mentioned in one of her shows that this song is intended to be a “mental hug” letting her audience know that they are not alone. 

Slow Dancing in the Dark - Joji 

Everyone knows the pain of unrequited love. It seems like a necessary experience to have in the process of finding and falling, in and out, of love. This song perfectly articulates this kind of heartache where the other person is not on the same page as you, in regards to the relationship. It also captures the conflicting feelings between being attached to the person and knowing that remaining in the relationship would do more harm than good: the narrator pleads for “just one more night” with his beloved in the verse but responds in the chorus, the motif of the song that goes, “give me reasons we should be complete / you should be with him I can’t compete.” When I first listened to the song, the unique arrangement and layering of the gentle Lo-fi beats and loops immediately drew me in, and I fell in love with the song when I got to the rhythm at the chorus; Joji definitely did an amazing job building up the emotion and maximizing its intensity at the “beat drop.” The layering of the repetitive and basic beats characteristic of Lo-fi music also creates a calming effect, which makes this song comforting, a great substitution for the silence or noises that surround us. 

Two - Sleeping at Last 

I am glad I accidentally stumbled upon this song a few years ago because it made me reflect about what love is and is not during a time when I held such a distorted view of it. This song is about the people that give literally everything to love and fix someone at the expense of their well-being. The sadness that it evokes is more thought-provoking than comforting, which is equally necessary for healing. I think that the song addresses two types of people, those on both the giving and receiving end of this kind of self-destructive love. It is written from the perspective of the giver using the intimate second-person narration along with soothing and layered piano and strings instrumentals. For this reason, I thought it was incredibly heart-warming at first. The metaphor of the ocean in the chorus adds to the romance as it portrays the almost unfathomable amount of love for someone. But it later illustrates the self-destruction of the lover, the cost they pay to “love with everything single thing I have,” which asks both the giver and receiver of this kind of relationship: is this romantic or destructive? 

Supermarket Flowers - Ed Sheeran 

I saved the best for the last. This song is a reminder of the brevity of life and urges us to hold our loved ones close through the depiction of the bittersweet ending of a “life with love.” For those grieving the loss of a loved one, this song puts the feeling into words with its beautiful imagery without the usual cliches (the “angel” is portrayed to be quite personal instead of being grandiose). It not only addresses the unbearable heartache from death, but also consoles the audience by making the connection between home and heaven. If you are not religious, I think that this can also be interpreted as them going to a better place and leaving behind the memories of a life filled with love. The song also comforts the grieving with the wise words, “a heart that's broke is a heart that's been loved.” Its gentle instrumentals with a bit of reverb and an instrumental break creates a space for you to feel your emotions that might have been repressed before. To be honest, Ed Sheeran’s singing voice itself does a lot of the healing, as a lot of his other old songs from the Plus, Multiply and Divide albums got me through tough times as well.