Music is a form of expression that allows us to create, process, and feel all types of emotions. It is a great vessel for artists to channel their joy, their hopes, and their dreams.
It is no surprise there are also songs written by artists dealing with difficult times in their lives, or expressing a troubling situation happening in the world during that time.
I put together a list of some of the saddest, most successful songs in music history.
Tears In Heaven – Eric Clapton
Tears In Heaven is a song co-written by English guitar legend Eric Clapton and American songwriter Will Jennings. This song is about the tragic and untimely death of Clapton’s four-year-old son, Connor.
This song became Clapton’s best-selling single in the United States and an iconic song from his music career. It is also #362 in Rolling Stone’s The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
Tears In Heaven is in the key of A and has some nice chord inversions. Eric Clapton plays it in a nylon guitar to give it a mellower tone.
Creep – Radiohead
Creep is a song by English alternative rock band Radiohead. It became the debut and lead single for their very first studio album, Pablo Honey. It is one of the most successful songs in their career.
According to frontman Thom Yorke, this song tells the tale of a drunk man who is trying to gain a woman’s attention but lacks the self-confidence to do so.
Creep is in the key of G and is a four-chord song. A great addition to this chord progression is the Cm chord, which works as tension from outside of the scale and resolves to G. This is very common to do with the IV-iv-I chords.
Black – Pearl Jam
Black is a song by the famous American rock/grunge band Pearl Jam. It is the fifth track of one of their most successful and iconic albums, Ten.
It is said that this song was heavily influenced by San Francisco-based indie rock band American Music Club.
Black talks about first love and letting go of the uncertainty of whether said love will elevate or destroy you.
This song is in the key of E, but changes chords with Em, making it an interesting chord progression. The end guitar solo is one of their most recognizable and a great place to learn some simple guitar melodies.
Like A Stone – Audioslave
Like A Stone is a song by the American rock band Audioslave. This song was part of their debut, self-titled album, and became one of their top songs.
There is some discrepancy as to the meaning of the song. Bassist Tim Commerford claimed the song talks about an old man waiting for death and reuniting with his loved ones.
However, lead vocalist and frontman Chris Cornell said that, while the song does talk about a man waiting for death, it is more about his relationship with God and the afterlife.
Like A Stone is in the key of Am and is a great acoustic song to learn.
Hurt – Johnny Cash
Hurt is a single found on Johnny Cash’s album American IV: The Man Comes Around. Even though Hurt is one of Johnny Cash’s most acclaimed songs, it was actually written by American industrial rock band Nine Inch Nails.
Even though neither Johnny Cash nor the members of Nine Inch Nails ever revealed the meaning of the song, it is said to be a suicide note from the protagonist. It is one of the saddest songs out there and Cash’s version proves it.
Hurt is in the key of Am and has all open chords except for the F chord.
Landslide – Fleetwood Mac
Landslide is a song by the British-American band Fleetwood Mac. It is track #8 of their debut, self-titled album, and is one of their best-known songs.
Lead singer Stevie Nicks wrote the song while visiting the mountains of Aspen. She states she was “looking out at the Rocky Mountains, pondering the avalanche of everything that had come crashing down on us… at that moment, my life truly felt like a landslide in many ways”.
Landslide is in the key of Eb, and you will need a capo on the 3rd fret. The chord chart also comes with a fingerpicking pattern for you to try.
Back To Black – Amy Winehouse
Back To Black is a song by English singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse. It is part of her second (and last) studio album, also titled Back To Black.
This song was inspired by Amy’s failed relationship with her boyfriend at the time. Mark Ronson produced this song, along with many others of hers.
This old-school type of song is in the key of Dm and has a swing feel. It is a simple song in terms of harmony, as it only uses chords from the scale.
I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry – Hank Williams
I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry is a song by American Country artist Hank Williams. He wrote and recorded this song in 1949. It was commercially very successful, and various artists have covered it over the years.
There is some controversy over who wrote the lyrics. It is said that 19-year-old Kentuckian Paul Gilley wrote the lyrics and then sold the rights to Hank Williams. Hank denied this and said he wrote them on his own.
I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry is a very simple song in the key of E. It is also a great song to learn if you are interested in Country music.
Skinny Love – Bon Iver
Skinny Love is a song written by American musician and songwriter Justin Vernon (also known as Bon Iver). It is part of his debut album For Emma, Forever Ago, and is one of his signature songs.
This song talks about lost love and the process of realizing it’s over, while still clinging to that person even when she/he’s not there. It is one of the saddest songs in modern music.
Skinny Love is in the key of Am and has some interesting chords such as D6sus2, which is easy to play.
Yesterday – The Beatles
Yesterday is a song by the Liverpool-based superband The Beatles. It is part of their fifth studio album Help!, and was primarily written by Paul McCartney. It is actually their very first song to feature only one member of the band.
This song talks about losing a loved one and reminiscing about the better days which are now in the past.
This song is in the key of F and you can use a capo on the 5th fret to help you play almost all chords in an open position.
The Scientist – Coldplay
The Scientist is a song by British rock band Coldplay. It is part of their second album, A Rush Of Blood To The Head, and was written by all members of the band. The lyrics of this song talk about a man’s desire for love and forgiveness.
Lead singer and frontman Chris Martin talks about how the song came to fruition. He was inspired by George Harrison’s album All Things Must Pass, and he developed the song on an old, out of tune piano.
The Scientist is in the key of Dm, and you can play this song with a capo on the 3rd fret or no capo at all.
Everybody Hurts – R.E.M
Everybody Hurts is a song by the American rock band R.E.M. It was part of their eighth studio album, Automatic For The People, and was also released as a single in 1993.
This song holds the message of how we are all subject to pain and disillusionment sometimes. It became widely popular and a song dedicated to an anti-suicide movement.
Everybody Hurts is in the key of Em and has an arpeggiated picking pattern that is great for those looking to develop their picking technique.
I’ll Never Love Again – Lady Gaga
I’ll Never Love Again is a song written for the American musical A Star Is Born. This version is part of the 2018 film and is performed by Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper. The song, as well as the film, were a massive success and won several Grammy Awards.
The meaning of the song is, as the title suggests, about that phase where you lose love and feel like you will never be able to love again. It is a powerful message that was further fueled by the death a Lady Gaga’s close friend
I’ll Never Love Again is in the key of G.
Someone Like You – Adele
Someone Like You is a song by English singer-songwriter Adele. Both she and American songwriter Dan Wilson wrote this song for Adele’s second studio album 21.
This song was inspired by a failed relationship Adele had and how she started to come to terms with it. She had previously written songs such as Rolling In The Deep and Rumor Has It, which touched on the subject but in a much more defiant way.
Someone Like You is in the key of A. You can use a capo in the 2nd fret to get all open chords (apart from a Bm/F#).
Something In The Way – Nirvana
Something In The Way is a rock song by American rock band Nirvana. It was written by vocalist, guitarist, and frontman Kurt Cobain. It is the last track of their second and most successful album, Nevermind. However, most copies of Nevermind also have a hidden last track, Endless, Nameless.
This song is believed to refer to a period in time when Kurt was homeless and slept underneath the Young Street Bridge. This idea has been discredited by Kurt’s sister, Kim Cobain.
Something In The Way is a very simple, two-chord song in the key of Fm. You’ll need a capo on the 1st fret to get the right chords, although Kurt’s guitar is tuned down lower.
The Long And Winding Road – The Beatles
The Long And Winding Road is a song from The Beatles’ twelfth and final studio album, Let It Be. Paul McCartney wrote the song, but John Lennon receives songwriting credit as well.
There are two versions of this song. The one I’m using is the stripped-down version with a sparse arrangement. However, the official version, which features producer Phil Spector, has a much bigger arrangement. In fact, Paul McCartney strongly dislikes that version as it sacrificed the intimacy of the song.
The Long And Winding Road is in the key of Cm, and you’ll need a capo on the 1st fret.
Nutshell – Alice In Chains
Nutshell is a song by Seattle-based American rock band Alice in Chains. It is part of their third EP, Jar Of Flies, and is a song they consistently perform in their live shows.
The late Layne Staley, former vocalist of the band, wrote the lyrics for Nutshell. The song talks about not wanting to live and being overwhelmed by the vicissitudes of life. The song took an even stronger meaning after Layne’s untimely death.
Nutshell is in the key of Ebm and you’ll need to tune your guitar down one half-step. It is a four-chord progression with all open chords and is another simple song to learn and great for beginners.
When The Party’s Over – Billie Eilish
When The Party’s Over is a song by American singer-songwriter Billie Eillish. Produced by her brother Finneas, it is the second single from her debut studio album When We Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?
The song’s concept came after Finneas left her date’s house with a feeling of disappointment from the relationship ending. They actually performed the song in their live shows for a year, to have it evolve.
When The Party’s Over is in the key of A, and you will need a capo on the 4th fret.
Breathe Me – Sia
Breathe Me is a song by Australian singer and songwriter Sia. This song featured on her third album Colour The Small One, and became very successful, especially on alternative radio.
Breathe Me’s meaning is that of a cry for help, a cry for hope, a cry for survival. It is one of her most raw songs.
Breathe Me is in the key of Am and has a very standard progression (Am-C-F-Fadd9). Apart from the F barre chord, this song is a great beginner’s choice and has some interesting chords.
Fix You – Coldplay
Fix You is another song from the British rock band Coldplay. It is one of the lead songs in their third album X&Y and one of their most successful and acclaimed song.
Chris Martin said that the song is “probably the most important song we’ve ever written.”
Fix You is in the key of Eb, and you will need a capo on the 3rd fret. This will allow you to play all open chords from the key of C and make it much simpler for you.
Somebody Else – The 1975
Somebody Else is a song by British rock band The 1975. It is track #10 of their second studio album I Like It When You Sleep, For You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware Of It. NME named it the best song of 2016.
This song, written by the four members of the band, talks about the feeling of knowing a relationship is over, not wanting to go back but at the same time feeling despair for the other person being with somebody else.
Somebody Else is in the key of F and is a great song to explore that key signature.
Boulevard Of Broken Dreams – Green Day
Boulevard Of Broken Dreams is a song by the American rock group Green Day. It was the second single but rapidly became their lead song from their acclaimed seventh album American Idiot. It is one of the most important songs of their career.
Even though most people associate this song with Hollywood, it was actually written when lead vocalist and frontman Billie Joe Armstrong was in New York.
This song is in the key of Fm and requires a capo on the 1st fret. This will make it seem as if it were in Em, making it a simple song for beginners.
Stay With Me – Sam Smith
Stay With Me is a song by English singer-songwriter Sam Smith. It was part of his debut album In The Lonely Hour and his most successful song up to date. Sam co-wrote this song with James Napier, William Phillips, Tom Petty, and Jeff Lyne.
This song is a gospel-driven song that talks about a one-night-stand where the protagonist knows it’s not true love, but fears loneliness even more.
Stay With Me is in the key of Am and is a very simple song to learn. The addition of a G#diminished chord gives it a bit of added flavor.
Past Life – Maggie Rogers
Past Life is a song by American pop singer-songwriter Maggie Rogers. It was part of her debut studio album, Heard It In A Past Life, which she released in January 2019. Both this song and her album received a very good response.
This song talks about the quick changes Maggie was experiencing in her life. It is a recurring theme in this album and is a good expression of what a young woman experiences while growing up.
Past Life is in the key of Am and is a great song for beginner guitar players.
Self Care – Mac Miller
Self Care is a song by American rapper Mac Miller. It comes from his fifth studio album Swimming, which was the last album he released before his death. Swimming was nominated for Best Rap Album at the 2019 Grammy Awards.
This song is part of a two-song series, split between Self Care and Oblivion. As the name of the song suggests, this song talks about taking care of yourself.
Self Care is in the key of G and has mostly open chords. The link I’m providing can also take you to a youtube video with a tutorial for the song.
Transatlanticism – Death Cab For Cutie
Transatlanticism is a song from the indie rock band Death Cab For Cutie. It is the seventh track from their fourth studio album, which is also named Transatlanticism. Lead vocalist, guitarist, and frontman Ben Gibbard ranks this album as his favorite by the band.
Both this song and the album talk about a long-distance relationship and all the challenges that come with it.
Transatlanticism is in the key of A and has a very common chord progression: I-iii-IV-vi. In this case, we have A-C#m-D-F#m.
Under The Bridge – Red Hot Chilli Peppers
Under The Bridge is a song by American rock band Red Hot Chilli Peppers. It is the eleventh track of their studio album, Blood Sugar Sex Magik. This album was crucial in the evolution and success the band had.
The lyrics of this song talk about loneliness and despondency, as well as a reflection on how narcotics impacted lead singer Anthony Kiedis’s life. He was not sure this song would fit in the album but was pressured by producer Rick Rubin to include it.
Under The Bridge is in the key of E and has mostly barre chords. This makes this song a good one to practice finger strength.
When I Was Your Man – Bruno Mars
When I Was Your Man is a song by American singer-songwriter Bruno Mars. It was the third promo single from his second studio album Unorthodox Jukebox. It is one of Bruno Mars’ most commercially successful songs up to date.
This emotional piano ballad talks about the regret of losing your lover due to lack of care. It also states the wish of her new man treating her better than he did. In an interview, he confessed the song was meant for his girlfriend, who he feared losing.
When I Was Your Man is in the key of C and is a great beginner song.
How You Remind Me – Nickelback
How You Remind Me is a song by Canadian rock band Nickelback. It became the lead single for their third studio album Silver Side Up and is the most successful song in their career.
Lead vocalist and guitarist Chad Kroeger wrote this song about his ex-girlfriend and the dysfunctional relationship they had.
How You Remind Me is in the key of Cm, and you’ll need a capo on the 3rd fret. It is a very simple, four-chord song and a good one for beginning singer-guitarists.
Dancing On My Own – Calum Scott
Dancing On My Own is a song by Swedish singer-songwriter Robyn. It was released in 2010 and was a moderate commercial success, later covered by British singer-songwriter Callum Scott for his Britain’s Got Talent audition.
Callum’s version received very polarized opinions. Even though it became a YouTube sensation and later on one of his best-selling records, many critics deemed it an insult to the original version.
Dancing On My Own is in the key of Db, but you can use a capo on the 1st fret to help you. Apart from that, it is a very, very simple song.
Somebody To Love – Queen
Somebody to Love is a song by the British supergroup Queen. It is part of their fifth album A Day at the Races in 1976. This song was compared to their earlier composition, Bohemian Rhapsody, as it used complex harmonies and guitar solos.
Lead singer and frontman Freddy Mercury wrote Somebody to Love as a soul-searching piece that questions life without love. His admiration for black singer Aretha Franklin inspired the creation of this song.
Drummer Roger Taylor said in an interview: “Somebody To Love” is Aretha Franklin-influenced. Freddie’s very much into that. We tried to keep the track in a loose, gospel-type feel. I think it’s the loosest track we’ve ever done.”
Somebody to Love is in the key of Ab. If you are looking to play the song’s chords as a play along, you’ll benefit from a capo in the first fret.
Cut My Lip – Twenty One Pilots
Cut My Lip is a song by the American duo Twenty One Pilots. It is part of their fifth studio album, Trench. This song talks about the willingness to persevere despite things being difficult. It is a reflection of most of the songs written by lead singer and frontman Tyler Joseph.
Cut My Lip is in the key of E and is a three-chord song. The progression goes as follows: F#m-E-B-B. There are some inversions of these chords, but is still a pretty simple progression to follow.
Wind Of Change – The Scorpions
Wind Of Change is a song by the West German rock band Scorpions. It was part of their eleventh studio album, Crazy World, and is one of the most successful songs in their entire career. Wind Of Change is one of the best-selling singles in rock music history.
This song came to fruition in a very complicated time in Europe. The division happening inside countries such as Russia and Germany, fueled by capitalism and socialism, inspired the band to create a song of unity and change. This song’s success is mainly due to the powerful message it shares.
Wind Of Change is in the key of C and is a great beginner’s song. It is also a great song for those looking to learn some rock solos.
Disarm – The Smashing Pumpkins
Disarm is a song by the American alternative rock band The Smashing Pumpkins. It was the third single released from their second studio album, Siamese Dream, and one of their top signature songs.
This song’s meaning revolves around the shaky relationship lead singer and frontman Billy Corgan had with his parents. The lyrical content was not short of controversy, which lead places like the United Kingdom to give the song little radio airplay.
Disarm is in the key of Em and has all open chords. There is a particularly interesting-sounding chord in this progression: Dsus/F#.
Closer – King Of Leon
Closer is a song by American alternative rock band Kings Of Leon. It is the first track of their fourth studio album, Only By The Night, which is also their most successful album to this day.
This song revolves around that feeling of being lost in the despair of vice and egocentrism. It talks about that darkness filling the protagonist and taking him closer to complete oblivion.
Closer is in the key of Bm and is a three-chord song. The great thing about this song is that it’s a great place to learn guitar lead lines and hooks without necessarily learning to solo.
Everybody Here Wants You – Jeff Buckley
Everybody Here Wants You is a song by American singer-songwriter Jeff Buckley. It is the second track on his album Sketches For My Sweetheart The Drunk, which was released after his death at age 30.
This song was written as a love song for Jeff’s girlfriend at the time, Joan Wasser. It was such an emotionally charged song, along with a strong vocal performance, that this song was nominated for Best Male Rock Performance at the 1999 Grammy Awards.
Everybody Here Wants You is in the key of C but modulates to F in the bridge thanks to the Bb chord. Nevertheless, it is a very simple song to learn and great for aspiring singers.
Fire Escape – Foster The People
Fire Escape is a song by American indie pop band Foster the People. It is the last track of their second studio album Supermodel, which is their heavier album in terms of the concepts they explore.
This song specifically talks about the “ugly side” of Los Angeles, which is the city the members of the band grew up in. Lead singer and frontman Mark Foster wrote the entirety of this song.
Fire Escape is in the key of E and is a four-chord song. With a progression that goes E-C#m-A-B, this is a great beginner’s acoustic song.
Drive – Incubus
Drive a song by American rock band Incubus. It was released in 2000 for their third studio album Make Yourself and is their biggest hit and breakthrough single.
According to lead singer, Brandon Boyd, “The lyric is basically about fear, about being driven all your life by it and making decisions from fear”.
This song is in the key of Em and is a bit more complex than other songs, but great for intermediate players.
Hey You – Pink Floyd
Hey You is a song by the English rock supergroup Pink Floyd. It is part of their 2-CD album The Wall, which is also their eleventh studio album. This album tells the story of an alienated young rockstar who retreats from society into self-isolation.
This song in particular talks about the boy realizing he is getting too isolated and asking for help from outsiders, which he will not get.
Hey You is in the key of Em and has one of the most recurring chords Pink Floyd used in many songs: the Emadd9. It is a great way to add that little tension between the F# and G note.
Take On Me – a-ha
Take On Me is a song by Norwegian synth-pop band A-ha. It was the lead single from their debut album, Hunting High And Low, and is the most successful and recognizable song in their entire career.
Interestingly enough, this song is a quite upbeat, cheerful one. This is one of the main elements synth-pop draws from.
However, several decades after this song was released, A-ha did an acoustic cover version that became quite successful as well. This version is a slowed-down one that gives a whole other meaning to the song.
Take On Me is in the key of Bm, and you’ll need a capo on the 2nd fret.
The End Of Love – Florence + The Machine
The End Of Love is a song by the English indie rock band Florence + The Machine. It is the ninth track of their fourth studio album, High As Hope, which had a much more minimalist production than previous albums.
In an interview, lead singer Florence Welch said: “There is loneliness in this record, and there’s issues, and pain, and things that I struggled with, but the overriding feeling is that I have hope about them, and that’s what kinda brought me to this title (High As Hope).”
The End Of Love is in the key of F#, and you will need a capo on the 1st fret to follow along with the chart I provided.
Gravity – John Mayer
Gravity is a song by American singer-songwriter and guitarist John Mayer. It is part of his third studio album, Continuum, which is also his most successful album. Gravity is one of his top-rated songs and a signature one from his career.
In an interview in 2005, John Mayer explained how this song is the most important song he’s written in his life. He later states that the song’s meaning revolves around the challenges we, as humans, face everyday just to strive for greatness and significance.
Gravity is in the key of G and is a fantastic song for guitarists to learn. The guitar solo is also great for learning simple lead lines.
Without Me – Mac DeMarco
Without Me is a song by Canadian singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and producer Mac DeMarco. It was part of his second mini-LP, Another One, which he released in August 2015. Another One is Mac DeMarco’s highest-peaking release to date.
This song talks from the perspective of the protagonists, who wishes her lover is happy even if it’s not with him.
Without Me is in the key of Db and you’ll need a capo on the 4th fret. The chart does very well in explaining the open chords as well as the rhythmic aspect of the guitar.
On Hold – The xx
On Hold is a song by the English indie pop band The XX. It was used as the lead single from their third studio album, I See You, and is one of their highest-ranking records internationally.
This song uses instrumental samples from American pop-rock duo Hall & Oates’ I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do). As for the lyrics, it revolves around an on-and-off relationship and beginning to realize that maybe they are not meant to be together.
On Hold is in the key of C and the chart does really well to explain the different progressions used in each section of the song.
With Or Without You – U2
With Or Without You is a song by the Irish rock supergroup U2. It is the third track in their fifth and most successful album, Joshua Tree. With Or Without You was also their most successful single at the time and one of their most recognized songs.
Lead singer and frontman Bono revealed he wrote this song while struggling with the responsibilities of being a married man and a musician.
With Or Without You is in the key of D, and you’ll need a capo on the 7th fret. It is a good song to learn some simple lead lines.
As always, these are only some of the many, many sad songs that have gain massive popularity. I encourage you to look for your own favorite ones and take the time to learn them.
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