12 Classic Sad Piano Songs – And How to Play Them

When you're down, a sad piano piece is just the thing for capturing those feelings. Let your emotions flow with these slow, sorrowful songs.

Last updated on 13 Sep. 2022

It’s okay to be sad sometimes. Some of the most beautiful music was written to evoke sadness, and when it’s done right we feel every pang. The beauty of playing music is that it can help you express your sadness, and allow you to let it go.

Here is a selection of twelve sad songs and pieces from across genres to capture and soothe a melancholy mood, all available to learn in the flowkey app.

Gymnopédie No. 1 - Erik Satie

This gentle, mournful piece contained Satie’s instruction to be played "Lent et Douloureux", which means "slowly and painfully". That said, there is a sense of optimism at the end to carry you through.

There is still debate over what Satie was referring to when he named his three "Gymnopédies", since the word is taken from a form of ancient greek naked war dancing (that’s right). Satie himself said he was inspired by a novel by Flaubert, and the piece was published alongside a poem by Latour. The poem ends in a similarly dreamlike way that reflects the music: "the amber atoms in the fire gleaming, mingled their sarabande with the gymnopaedia".

Clair de Lune - Claude Debussy

This third piece from Debussy's “Suite bergamasque” is not named after someone named “Clair”, but means “light of the moon”. Probably his most famous piece, it evokes the peaceful feeling of simply staring up at the moon at night.

It may begin quiet and minimal, but builds into expressive, fast runs of the fingers. The effect is majestic, before tapering back down to a gentle ending.

Hallelujah - Leonard Cohen

Cohen's original was a melancholic, fragile musical poem that focused attention on the lyrics. Each of the countless cover versions bring their own spin on what the artists felt a “Hallelujah” represented. Whether stately, sexual or purely spiritual, this piano arrangement allows you to strip away the lyrical meaning and simply play out your emotions.

The Sound of Silence - Simon & Garfunkel

Paul Simon once said that the inspiration for this song came while sitting in a bathroom at age twenty-one with the lights out, no sound but the water running. He wanted to capture the feeling of these solitary times, the ability to create a perfect moment when alone with an instrument. In Simon's case this was a guitar, but you can do the same at the keyboard.

Ain't No Sunshine - Bill Withers

Everyone has missed someone at some point, and “Ain't No Sunshine” became an anthem of loneliness and loss across generations since. About the inspiration for the song, Withers said “Sometimes you miss things that weren't particularly good for you”, and we can all relate to that.

As a side note, this was the first single from Bill Withers' debut album, released when he was thirty-three, a “factory worker puttering around”. If Bill started late, so can you.

Imagine - John Lennon

Lennon co-wrote the lyrics with his wife Yoko Ono, wanting to create something like a “positive prayer”. The resulting anthem for peace recognizes that despite everything wrong with the world, we can make things better if we come together and create a united existence. It's an uplifting message felt from the first few notes of the piano melody.

Every Breath You Take - The Police

Easily the most successful song from the Police, the distinctive motif of repeating broken chords combines with the simple melody to create something beautiful. But while it may sound like a pure declaration of love, Sting himself disagrees. He describes it as a song about the uncontrollable jealousy and obsession felt after love ends. Creepy, but very real.

Tears in Heaven - Eric Clapton

In the space of a year, Eric Clapton suffered the loss of his son, his friend and fellow musician Stevie Ray Vaughan, and two of his roadies. Clapton wrote this song to express his grief, to give himself and others the strength to continue living. Seeing it this way, the song inspires us not to give up, to keep going after loss. Take it from him: “I must be strong and carry on, 'Cause I know I don't belong here in heaven.”

Nothing Else Matters - Metallica

Metallica are mostly known for their heavy metal shredding, so this may seem a left-field choice unless you know the song. If you are familiar with it, you will know that it is a mournful rock power ballad, with a haunting melody. Singer James Hetfield began writing the song on a long-distance call with his girlfriend, and that sentiment carries through from the very first line: “So close, no matter how far. Couldn't be much more from the heart.”

Let Her Go - Passenger

The title says it all. This song captures the pain when love ends in excruciating detail, all of the little things that you might not have appreciated at the time, but now you miss more than anything. By repeating the line “and you let her go”, the message is eventually a positive one. You can let her (or him, or them) go.

River Flows in You - Yiruma

Yiruma said that this piece “begins and ends by conjuring emotions from the innermost depths of my heart”. It represents love in its entirety, and what that actually means. Sad but graceful, it builds to a stronger, inspirational place at the end.

Call Out My Name - The Weeknd

The most recent song on this list, the basis for this song is stated clearly: "falling for you was my mistake." It's a sad truth that many of us have to come to terms with, but like so many of these sad songs, it closes with the realization that we need to move on. "Call out my name, and I’ll be on my way." On the way to something better, and altogether less heartbreaking. It's a hope we can all hold on to.

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