Creating meaning in music: Sadness

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It’s well understood that we can express meaning by combining emotions with information, (see my last article about more on this) but lets break it down a bit. We’re going to look at different emotions individually and explore how these emotions effect us, what meaning they bring to our lives and how we compose to ring across that meaning.

Lets start with one of the most common emotions used in composition:


First we’ll look at how sadness effects us physiologically, then we’ll explore meaning we get from the emotion of sadness mixed with information around events at the time of feeling sad, and finally we’ll use this meaning to explore how to create sad music that really brings meaning to lives.

What does your body do when it’s sad?

The effects of the emotion

• Your shoulders slump,
• your head bows,
• your limbs hang down.
• We tend to sit down and rest when we’re sad or even lie down.
• When you have to move, you walk so that your feet to shuffle along rather than your normal gait.
• Your voice changes to be less defined and your words slur together.
• Your inflections at the end of your sentences go down.
• Your dynamics become softer.
• Your tempo becomes slower.

Each of these attributes, and that’s only just a few, are important ways that our bodies experience and respond to sadness. We can replicate some of these actions directly in music, but we’ll get to that shortly.

Information; the second ingredient to creating meaning

Remember that you need both emotions and information to create meaning in someone’s life. Let’s have a quick look at what this means. To do this, I invite you to step back into memory lane. (I apologise if this is painful for any reason. I recognise that some people have more to be sad about than others.)

Think back to a time when you were sad:

You would have felt a very heavy heart and shown some or all of the attributes listed above. But I also want you to think of the context of the situation. What made you feel sad then?
The reason for feeling sad is normally more relevant to people than the feelings themselves. We’ll describe a situation that made us sad but not so much our feelings about it at the time. We might say something like “it was a very sad time of my life” or something, but even that has context to it; it was a time of your life.
So what was your situation? Feel free to write it down even.
You might remember details of the time. The weather, what you wore, what other people looked like, where you were, the sounds around you including any music that might have been playing nearby. Perhaps not the exact song, but maybe the feel.

An easy example to bring to mind is a funeral.

• Lots of black dresses and suits
• Often inside a church building
• Perhaps an organ playing and hymns being sung
• The occasional sob in the crowd
• Somber speeches from the front
• People walking in and out slowly
• Even the hearse driving slowly
• How uncomfortable your clothes or shoes might have felt
• How comforting a hug might have been
• Even the fragrance of Aunt Betty’s liberally applied perfume in the row in front of you.

This is all information that you might gather while you’re feeling sad. Every one of these thoughts were attached to that sad emotion that you felt that day and created meaning. As a result, that meaning becomes very complex and difficult to describe in words, but to greatly simplify it, in this case the meaning might be something like “Sad place, sad dress code, sad movements, sad sounds and sad music.” Of course, very simplified.

Your situation might be very different to this one.
It might be being left by your partner, it might be your favourite milk jug breaking on the kitchen floor, it might be being bullied in school. Whatever your situation is, there is huge amounts of information surrounding it and it’s this information combined with what you felt physically and emotionally at the time, that gives that occasion meaning.

Why is this important?

If we, as composers, can tap into that meaning and replicate some of the emotions and hint at some of the information musically, our listeners will fill in the gaps and create meaning from that music which directly relates to their own sad situations in their lives.
The trick is – how.

How to musically represent the physiology of feeling sad?

Often the first thing that jumps to a musicians mind is to use a minor chord.
Cool. That works, a bit, but it’s far too general to just chuck in a minor chord here and there and play everything in a minor scale. As skilled composers, we need to look into it a bit deeper than that.

Quickly jump back to the top of the page and read that list of physical responses to feeling sad.

So a few of these are really easy to directly replicate in music.

Our movements become slower, so our music can also take a step back in tempo.
Our dynamics become softer so our musical dynamics can become quieter and more gentle.
Our feet shuffle along when we walk and we feel like we’re dragging ourselves through gravy so our music can become predominantly steps rather than leaps. (a step is moving between a semitone or tone [eg: C to D] and a leap is moving over more than a tone in one note [eg: C to F])
We tend to sit down or lie down so our music can move down in pitch.
Our voice changes so that our words slur so our instruments can slur from note to note.

This is just a start. You can come up with more.
This is also just covering the physiological aspects of feeling sad.

These rules can be used universally to create a texture that either stands alone or sits under a solo instrument. This texture can then be ‘tinted’ with bits of musical information relating to your listeners’ experiences.

How do we express sadness through information in music?

This is where it gets tricky. You’ll need to be smart and do some research on your target audience.

The beauty of this is that we only have to hint at information using our music. It’s like magic how our brains will very quickly fill in the gaps and create meaning. We only have to be very subtle, but cleverly subtle.

Lets say your target audience is one that has experienced loss of family or friends in battle

Miltary-sadness-composing-music-with-meaningPut yourself in their situation:
Their loss is military related. What can we say musically about the military?
All you need is a rolling marching style snare drum and a solo trumpet and you have military. The rest of the information will be recalled in the listeners mind. These two elements don’t even have to be in the foreground. They can be nested in a well textured background that has been arranged according to the rules listed in the previous section.

Lets say the sadness was caused by a national atrocity in a country such as famine in Africa

un_african_famine_compsing-music-with-meaningAmbient hand drums such as the Djembe or Log Drums mixed with some smoothly played Kora or Ngoni (low plucked instruments) will nicely set the scene. Once again, you can nest these into the textured background as before. You could find some forlorn African vocals to go over the top to top it off. If it’s a communal sadness then multiple voices would work. If you were telling an individual’s story you’d use a solo vocalist.

For an English environment, Piano does a great job at expressing sadness. It is such a common instrument in so many households that we can use this quite freely. A solo trumpet played smoothly and sadly will also bring across this feel.

If it was Scottish, use bagpipes.
If it’s Irish, use Uilleann Pipes.
If it’s Indian use a Sitar drone.

Of course this is generalizing but it works.

There are also time considerations.

Maybe your listeners are quite old and their sadness is from early last century.
Have a listen to some old music from that era and replicate the instrumentation used there. Also a little trick is to try replicating the production quality by recording with antique microphones or if you aren’t in a position to do this, find processing plugins that will alter the EQ, compression and pitch in a way that replicates a record player or old tube radio. Think mono. Careful with this.

Speaking production

When you’re sad the bright edge seems to disappear from life. The crackle and pop of events are dulled down and become more of a throb.
Using something as simple as an EQ, you can take the higher frequencies away from some of the instrumentation and replicate that dullness, particularly instruments that have a pulse to them such as pizzicato or marcato Cello or Double Bass. These can act as a kind of pulse or throb.

Gentleness needs to be retained and can be achieved in a number of ways.
Firstly, your underlying texture should be smooth and not have any sharp or penetrating features. It should spread across the whole stereo spectrum in essence, encompassing the whole world of your music. Remember that when we’re sad, we generally retract into ourselves and our immediate environment becomes our whole world, so it’s not hard to replicate that small space in our music.

The feature instrument should sit prominently above the texture you’ve created, clearly heard and easy to relate to. It should not have dynamic or bright bursts but retain a feel to it as if it’s a precious friend sitting next to you consoling you. As in real conversation, there will be meaningful silences.


Silence is prevalent in sadness. We seek this when we’re sad and so we should also provide this in our music, however silence is the most difficult instrument to compose with.
The safest way is not to use complete silence but to retain a soft texture underneath while your feature or solo instrumentation has a break. These breaks can either be regular or irregular depending on the feel you’re after. Both work for different scenarios.
An effective way to use silence is to fade down to it, hold it briefly then fade back into the music again. This also reinforces the idea of slowness in movement and time.

The result is meaning

Using all or some of these methods will definitely work, but as with anything in music, there are no rules. If you can achieve meaning in your listeners through sad music, then you’ve done it. This is simply one way to approach it and a great place to start. As you become more and more adept at it, you will find more and more ingenious ways to create meaning. These ways will make you unique in your field and this uniqueness will be what sets you apart as a great composer.
Remember it’s not about getting a great sound or even about getting a great reaction from your listeners.
Composing music is about giving.
It’s about creating meaning in your listeners’ lives.

I’d love to hear your perspectives on this and how you go about creating meaning in your listeners’ lives. Feel free to share your thoughts.