Guest Post: The Saddest Song

This article originally appeared at The Tannhauser Gate — JB

Open Goldberg Variations, Werner Schweer, editor.

Listening to “happy” music can make one feel happier. However, instead of always making people feel worse, listening to sad music often brings on a state of “paradoxical pleasure.”

I am not saying that listening to sad music in and of itself makes people happier. What I am saying is that listening to sad music can evoke a sequence of very complex emotions. Furthermore, many people regard experiencing that kind of a cascade of metamorphosing emotions as “pleasurable.” (Or perhaps, just as a relief.)

The somewhat waffle-like language employed above is in recognition of the fact that many people experience the same music in different ways. By the way, the sequence of emotions Shock/Disbelief/Anger/Despair formerly was called The Four Stages of Saab Ownership. “What do you mean, my engine’s harmonic balancer was held on with glue?”

I think whether the precise emotional mechanism (and what a silly word “mechanism” is to use, in this context) is transference or catharsis or a feeling of empathy will just have to remain a mystery of the human soul. But from the earliest times, serious thinkers (from Aristotle to Schopenhauer) have always recognized that the power of sad music (and also of literature and drama) does not lie in its merely making people feel sadder than they had been.

A recent BBC Culture article asks whether data diving can “reveal” the “Saddest Number One Song Ever.” I think that that article itself reveals the multiple, perhaps even fatal, limitations of such an approach.

If I had to pick one song known to me as the saddest ever (which avoids the major problems associated with judging the quality and the qualities of songs by things like Billboard charts or Grammys), that would be the “Aria” from the Goldberg Variations. The Goldberg Variations might not have words, but right at the top of the score it says “Song” (albeit in Italian).

Song samples and more pondering, after the jump.

Glenn Gould, J.S. Bach Goldberg Variations, Aria 1 (1981 recording)(complete)

To give a very elementary musical analysis, the Aria is in slow 3/4 time–what we would now call Waltz time, except for the fact that the couples’ dance called the Waltz, as we know it, started to become popular only in the period 1750-1770; while the Variations were first published in 1741. (Initial reactions were that the dance was scandalous.) Boris Goldovsky once told me that the Waltz became popular only because technological innovations had made leather shoes with sewn-on (rather than nailed-on) soles more affordable, and so were no longer just for the very wealthy. The relevance is that leather shoes with sewn-on soles were the sine qua non of the sliding step that characterized the Waltz (at least if you did not want to leave large gouges in the dance floor).

The Goldbergs Aria’s melody starts with two high Gs. After briefly inching upward to A and B, the melody descends stepwise to two Gs an octave below (measure 3). Then, after making one upward gesture to A, the melody again descends to D above Middle C (measure 4). That’s pretty much all a downer, so to speak. Starting with measure 5, the foregoing is essentially repeated, except with a starting point of the D that is one octave above the resting place at the end of the previous measure, which is three tones below the starting Gs of measure 1.

However, in the bass part, from the beginning each successive measure enacts upward motion through the staggered entrances of a dotted half-note (three beats), a half note (two beats), and a quarter note (one beat). What is happening here is dramatic tension, created by a melody and a bass line that appear to be at cross purposes to each other. That dramatic tension is dynamic enough to sustain 30 variations. The Aria itself runs for 32 bars, so the 30 variations plus the first and last iterations of the Aria add up to another instance of the number 32; but as far as I am concerned, the hounds can chase that one over the hills.

The above Aria-1 sound byte is from the remastered three-CD retrospective A State of Wonder. That CD slipcased set combines remasterings of Glenn Gould’s 1955 and 1981 Goldbergs with an “extras” disc. I bought the CBS digitally-mastered Gould 1981 Goldbergs LP when it first came out, and I followed with great interest the digital-format releases. Having been disappointed by the SACD release (which disappointment I revealed in my former column in Stereophile magazine), I was heartened to see Sony Classical Legacy release (at a real bargain price) a three-CD set wherein Gould’s 1981 recording was mastered from the analog backup tapes, which I must say, sound better than the Red-Book-Quality digital masters as they were fecklessly format-converted to DSD for the SACD; and to what end? Way to go, guys. Sigh.

Here in The Twilight of the Physical Media, A State of Wonder can be had for the non-Princely sum of $13.05 via Amazon; and with Amazon Prime, you get access to a streaming copy as well (I gather, minus the extras, which are an interview and some out-takes.). I think that both of Gould’s Goldbergs are rather necessary for Cultural Literacy in Music. So please just buy A State of Wonder.

If you already have one or a few Goldbergs: scanning the various in-print offerings (Arkivmusic lists 215 in-print CD, SACD, or DVD versions), the ones I’d say are very safe bets are: Simone Dinnerstein; Richard Egarr; Vladimir Feltsman; Igor Levitt; and Sergey Schepkin. (Egarr plays a harpsichord tuned to A = 409Hz; the Feltsman and Schepkin piano discs are reissues of older recordings but in fine modern sound; and Levitt’s Goldbergs come in a set with piano-variations works by Beethoven and Rzewski.)

But the surprise top recommendation, at least in the sense of, “if you have not heard this, you must hear this,” goes to Beatrice Rana (b. 1993). Her official site is here. And here’s a brief video:

So many wonderful things going on at once! Flow, pacing, embellishment, tone, architecture–it’s all there. Brava!

So, now that you are all Goldbergs’ed up: on to my problems with the BBC’s data diving for music.


Credit: Miriam Quick. Data source: Spotify, extracted using spotifyr.
1,080 tracks that reached Number One on Billboard Hot 100, July 1958 to April 2018.

I have three major problems with the methodology employed. First, the inquiry was limited to Billboard Hot-100-chart Number Ones. Songs that peaked at No. 4 or No. 2 were not considered. Secondly, the characterization of whether a song was “sad” or otherwise depended upon a metric assigned to the song by Spotify, and how that worked has not been fully revealed. Thirdly, the machine intelligence that sorted through the more than 1,000 songs that have reached Number One over the last 60 years (apparently, reportedly) disregarded the lyrics. Just think about that!

Billboard’s Hot 100 chart presents a snapshot with a shutter speed of one week—another example of the “Tyranny of the New” that in my opinion has always bedeviled the music business and music journalism. A single that gets to No. 1 might be grabby as all get-out, but it might also not wear well. Shooting stars and flashes in the pan have a way of wearing out their welcomes. Whereas the “Always a Bridesmaid But Never a Bride” single that hangs in the Top 10 for months might actually sell more records over the course of a year.

I can think of no better examples of what I am talking about than the facts that in 1972, Melanie Safka’s abominable and detestable “Brand New Key” (the “Roller-Skate Song”) spent two weeks in the Number One position, while Eric Clapton’s band Derek and the Dominoes’ single “Layla” spent one week in the Top Ten—down in the No. 10 position. I think that that tells you all you need to know about the usefulness of Billboard’s Top 100 Number One as anything but a snapshot of one week in a turbulent and not always well-informed marketplace.

To let the cat out of the bag, the BBC data dive (which is extremely dependent upon a non-transparent Spotify algorithm) came up with the result that the saddest No. 1 record ever was Roberta Flack’s version of Ewan MacColl’s “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.” Flack’s “The First Time Ever…” was the top single of 1972 and also bagged the Grammys for Record of the Year and Song of the Year. Its 11-week hangtime in the Top Ten was matched in 1972 only by Gilbert O’Sullivan’s “Alone Again, Naturally.” So I cannot claim that it was a shooting star or a flash in the pan.

What I can claim is that by disregarding songs that did not reach No. 1, the data dive ignored all the songs of Joni Mitchell, and ignored poignant songs from Linda Ronstadt’s “Long Long Time” (peaking at No. 25 in 1970) to Gordon Lightfoot’s “If You Could Read My Mind” (peaking at No. 5 in 1971) to David Gray’s “This Year’s Love” (the single failed to chart in the US; the album charted at No. 35 in 2001) to Roberta Flack’s cover of Janis Ian’s “Jesse” (peaking at No. 30 in 1973), which I think is a substantially sadder song than “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.” I also think that Ms. Ian’s “Jesse” is simply on a higher level of songwriting than “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.” Either refresh your memory or have a listen:

I think that if I had to choose a song with lyrics as the saddest ever, it would be a dead heat between “Jesse” and Don McLean’s “Vincent” (which peaked at No. 12 in 1973).

Well, enough from me. If you have any nominations for the Saddest Song Ever (classical, popular, or jazz) please share them in the Comments section.

# # #




44 Replies to “Guest Post: The Saddest Song”

  1. rwb

    “Thirdly, the machine intelligence that sorted through the more than 1,000 songs that have reached Number One over the last 60 years (apparently, reportedly) disregarded the lyrics.”

    This is starkly apparent as the happiest, most energetic song found per their methods is actually a bit of a downer with those taken into account.

    Though, I’m not sure BBC Culture is writing for an audience that’s really demanding of pristine methods, here…

    • John Marks


      Yes, you nailed that. That little factoid was buried “below the fold,” of course.

      I can think of two excellent examples why the methodology described in the BBC Culture article fails to respond to the art of songwriting in the whole, in the fullest sense.

      The music part of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” is in 12/8 time and in the key of C major. The rocking rhythm and the rippling piano accompaniment suggest a lullaby, while the (mostly) vanilla harmonic structure (A minor is the relative major of C major, so both sets of notes are identical, only the starting point of the scale changes) and the limited dynamic range all are comforting. On the grid above, Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” would be on the HAPPY and CALM end of the picture.

      But the lyrics are rather dejected. I think in terms of the craft of songwriting, what Cohen is doing is saying what he wants to say in the words, while the music, seemingly oblivious to the import of the words, makes the bitter pills a bit easier to swallow.

      The other excellent example is Janis Ian’s “At Seventeen.” The lyrics describe the petty cruelties meted out at a small-town high school to girls who were not pretty and rich. But the song is sung looking back from an adult perspective (“It was long ago and far away”), and even manages to show some charity to the former beauty queens:

      Remember those who win the game
      lose the love they sought to gain
      in debentures of quality and dubious integrity
      Their small-town eyes will gape at you
      in dull surprise when payment due
      exceeds accounts received at seventeen

      But again, the music is incongruous. It is a gently lilting, swaying bossa nova–count it out! I’d expect “At Seventeen” (peaked at No. 3 in 1975) would be at the CALM end of the chart when you disregard the lyrics, and at a neutral position between ANGRY and SAD.

      So, in the last analysis I think the BBC Culture article is best regarded as an example of how not to do it.


      • rwb

        You may have already seen this, but:

        web (dot) archive (dot) org/web/20170422195736/

        arrived at via:

        community (dot) spotify (dot) com/t5/Content-Questions/Valence-as-a-measure-of-happiness/td-p/4385221

        This all smells so fudgey that I’m not even sure if it was ever intended to be useful to anyone.

      • nightfly

        Upbeat Breakup Songs could be their own post. “We Don’t Talk Anymore” by Cliff Richard, the aforementioned “Hey Ya,” “Enid” by Barenaked Ladies – heck, Barry Manilow’s “Can’t Smile Without You” ends in a sing-along hand-clapping blowout where he sounds astonishingly happy for a guy who’s findin’ it hard to do anything (including laugh and sing).

        (That last example, of course, could be an intentional send-up of the weepy misery songs so prevalent during the 70s. Hell, Manilow wrote a bunch of those himself. Still…)

  2. RC

    Not even sure it’s the saddest song ever, but everything about a good recording of the “Salve Regina” at the end of Poulenc’s opera “Dialogues of the Carmelites” is gonna be pretty heart-stopping: it’s a classic Latin prayer, sung by the nuns who, per the staging, are being beheaded one by one (at which point their voices drop out of the chorus, abruptly punctuated by the sound of a guillotine in the recording I have). So yeah, it’s a sad song sung in the saddest way possible.

    In conclusion, Poulenc was not a fan of the French Revolution.

    I hear what you’re saying about muscially sad songs, though, and for that, I guess I’d suggest The Cranberries may have written about half the saddest pop melodies out there (“The Icicle Melts” and “Bosnia” may stand out), and every note and chord in No Doubt’s “Tragic Kingdom” (the track, not the album) is a calculated bummer. You don’t even have to know the song is a memorial dirge to Walt Disney’s frozen head to be bummed out, but the lyrics are ALSO DEPRESSING.

    When I think about songs that actually make me (and others) cry, it tends to be about more personal gut punches. I daresay many people get teary during “Taxi”, “Cat’s in the Cradle” is famously a gut-punch for just about every dad alive, but nobody cries during “30,000 Pounds of Bananas.”

  3. Fred Lee

    Albinoni’s Adagio in G Minor does it for me.

    I assume it’s because of its association with the last scene of Gallipoli, which I watched at a fairly young age, and has for whatever reason stuck with me. Or maybe it’s because of The Doors cover “Feast Of Friends”.

    I don’t claim to be a connoisseur of classical music, though, so I’m sure there are plenty who would disagree with my selection.

  4. Disinterested-Observer

    It’s a clickbait proxy and a bad one at that. No “After the Laughter,” no “Neither One of Us,” no “Poncho and Lefty,” it basically means nothing and is hardly worth writing about. I dig John’s writing but who among us gives a shit about the BBC?

  5. Disinterested-Observer

    I just realized that the BBC, John, and and I all forgot about the saddest of all songs. It’s called “Lick My Love Pump” by the legendary Spinal Tap.

  6. hank chinaski

    I’ll play:
    Gorecki #3 for the high brow

    Some random B-sides for us philistines:
    Rush ‘Losing it’
    The Cars ‘All Mixed Up’
    Pink Floyd ‘Nobody Home’
    Radiohead ‘Exit Music’

  7. awagliar

    For the classical genre, I hereby nominate Larcrimosa from Mozart’s Requiem.

    The most recent entrant in my own personal sad-song catalog: Frank Turner’s “Song for Josh”. Having known the titular Josh — not deeply, but as well as anyone who spent considerable time outside the 930 Club in DC — is undoubtedly a contributing factor.

    My eldest son and I are solidly in the third verse of “Cat’s in the Cradle”. I suspect the fourth is gonna kick my ass.

  8. Nostrathomas

    If lyrics have anything to do with it (and they should) “He Stopped Loving Her Today” by George Jones is up there for me.

    Or basically anything by Townes Van Zandt.

  9. Ronnie Schreiber

    Visions of Johanna. Alternatively, any song I enjoyed with my ex. Gonna have to find another best friend, somehow.

  10. Frank Williams

    There were a lot of schmaltzy sad songs in the 50s and 60s (dead teenager song, anyone? I won’t say that it is the saddest song of all time, but a girl I knew would break down and sob every time she heard Bobby Goldsboro’s “Honey. That’s the only song I’ve seen affect someone that way.

    • Disinterested-Observer

      I love the Shangri Las’ “Leader of the Pack” but I mostly laugh when I hear it. It’s like seeing “Them!” or “The Blob” it’s just funny now. Speaking of the dead kid songs of the 50’s and 60’s, anyone remember all the cancer songs in early aughts country?

  11. Compaq Deskpro

    50 Cent’s When It Rains it Pours, in which 50 gives the listener a bleak tour of the hood and wonders why nobody is ambitious enough to accomplish anything than the usual destructive behaviors, all to a slow thumping beat by Dr. Dre with strings that sample Those Were the Days by Mary Hopkin.

    Tether by CHVRCHES, Glasgow electropop band, just a breakup song pushed to the point of suicidal. After hitting its lowest point it marches on with a cheerful upbeat synth riff, in stark contrast to the themes of the song, this is a common technique in their music.

  12. Compaq Deskpro


    A Hard Rain’s a Gonna Fall by Bob Dylan is a good one, his lyrics are mostly his “blue eyed son” telling the narrator of all the terrible (or abstract) things he saw in his travels, I believe a lot of it is references to the Vietnam war. It shares with the 50 Cent song the incredulousness that people in poverty only seem to be making things worse for themselves, with a resolve to share what he has seen with the world.

  13. -Nate

    Wow ;

    I’m impressed with the wide variety of music discussed here ~ mostly I hear from others ‘where the hell did you learn about all this weird music you listen to ?” yet here you are discussing from “ring my bell” to modern tunes and compositions .

    “It don’t pay to think too much On things you leave behind” ~ true this as as ‘cat’s in the cradle’ says, fatherhood is a bitch sometimes .

    My beloved Son always talks about how I’m such a great father because I taught him to be independent and roll with life’s punches yet not being involved in his daily life sucks .

    Good music is timeless, that’s the real takeaway here .


  14. safe as milk

    state of wonder is probably my favorite classical album. after reading today’s post, i played the 1955 and 1981 versions of aria back to back. i was surprised how much more i like the 1981 version. it’s 50% slower and much “sadder.” i’m usually of the opinion that artists do their best work in their twenties. yet, here is gould rerecording his most famous album 26 years late and it’s… better.

    • Disinterested-Observer

      I don’t know why but it makes people weep instantly. It’s like in between Mozart and Bach. Like a Mach piece.

  15. CliffG

    Any classical music aficionado back in the ’60s and 70’s had Glenn Gould’s Goldberg Variations in their collection. Never thought they were that depressing, just preferred his chamber music more (other than the Partitas and Sonatas- magnificent). Adam Smith thought that empathy was the universal human emotion, and I would guess most folk’s opinions of sad songs would revolve around that with which they most identified in some manner.

    • John Marks


      From the mid-1950s on, if people had a “classical” LP it was often Gould’s 1955 Goldbergs (and if it was jazz, it was the Miles Davis group’s “Kind of Blue). Gould’s 1955 Goldbergs swooped like a bat out of hell. He got to a point he could no longer listen to that record, and he re-recorded the piece in a totally different emotional context–my sound clip above is the 1981 re-recording’s Aria. Perhaps “poignant” might be a better word than sad, but, Gould’s mature slow version has always struck me as one of the most wistful and regret-filled recordings of anything in the piano repertory.

      john marks
      post author

  16. SIV

    Whoa Melanie Safka’s abominable and detestable “Brand New Key” (the “Roller-Skate Song”) that’s a great song. The ne plus ultra of idiosyncratic pop songs. I gotta give credit to the hifi-huckster critic here because he had me nodding “yes…yes…yes” right up until he dropped this bomb. There is one better song that shared the charts with Layla and Brand New Key, the slick studio instrumental songScorpio. Melanie still had the best pop hit of that very excellent year when you restrict it to songs with lyrics.

    • John Marks

      Mon Vieux,

      We will just have to agree to disagree.

      For my increasingly meager shekels, Melanie’s voice is like fingernails on a blackboard; whereas the sexual (breasts/penis) double entendre of the title makes me amazed that a superior alien civilization has not yet vaporized us for that reason alone.

      But we all have our guilty pleasure pieces of music or songs. I love Harry Nilsson’s “Coconut” song.

      “Brand New Key” charted both in late 1971 and early 1972. Here’s a list of 1971 – 1972 chart gems; in such company, I think “Brand New Key” can only be comic relief.


      john marks

      Black Magic Woman (Santana)
      Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is (Chicago)
      Your Song (Elton John)
      If You Could Read My Mind (Gordon Lightfoot)
      Me and Bobby McGee (Janis Joplin)
      Proud Mary (Ike & Tina Turner)
      Have You Ever Seen the Rain (Creedance Clearwater)
      What’s Going On (Marvin Gaye)
      Brown Sugar (Rolling Stones)
      Rainy Days and Mondays (Carpenters)
      Don’t Pull Your Love (Hamilton, Joe Frank and Reynolds)
      You’ve Got a Friend (James Taylor)
      That’s the Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be (Carly Simon)
      Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology) (Marvin Gaye)
      Spanish Harlem (Aretha Franklin)
      Ain’t No Sunshine (Bill Withers)
      Maggie May (Rod Stewart)
      The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down (Joan Baez)
      American Pie (Don McLean)
      Day After Day (Badfinger)
      Without You (Nilsson)
      Mother and Child Reunion (Paul Simon)
      Doctor My Eyes (Jackson Browne)
      Morning Has Broken (Cat Stevens)
      Tumbling Dice (Rolling Stones)
      (Last Night) I Didn’t Get to Sleep at All (5th Dimension)
      Alone Again (Naturally) (Gilbert O’Sullivan)
      Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress (Hollies)
      Layla (Derek and the Dominoes)
      Coconut (Nilsson)
      Honky Cat (Elton John)
      Go All the Way (Raspberries)
      Burning Love (Elvis Presley)
      Nights in White Satin (Moody Blues)
      I Can See Clearly Now (Johnny Nash)
      Freddie’s Dead (Curtis Mayfield)
      Good Time Charlie’s Got the Blues (Danny O’Keefe)
      I Am Woman (Helen Reddy)
      Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone The Temptations
      Summer Breeze (Seals and Crofts)
      If You Don’t Know Me by Now (Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes)
      You’re So Vain (Carly Simon)

      # # #

      • -Nate

        This is what makes Music and Art so alike ~ no single person can truly say what’s good or bad .

        So much information and knowledge here .


      • Dirty Dingus McGee

        And since then I have probably heard each of those songs about 1 gajillion times ( thanks crappy FM radio stations). To the point where I would prefer to hunt down whoever is playing that, and beat them like a rented mule.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.