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What Is the Saddest Chord Progression in the World?

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This is an updated version of an article that previously appeared on Ethan Hein’s blog.

In 1895, the short-lived Russian composer Vasily Kalinnikov wrote this particularly lovely piece of music:

This is the second movement of Kalinnikov’s Symphony No. 1 in G minor. At 6:16, there’s a particularly beautiful and tragic chord progression. It’s in the key of E♭, but I transposed it into C for ease of understanding:

I mentally refer to this progression as “the Willie Nelson turnaround,” because I first heard it in his classic recording of “I’d Have to Be Crazy,” written not by Willie, but by Steven Fromholz. I had the pleasure of performing this tune many times back in my country-music days, and it makes a surprisingly great lullaby for my kids.

+ Read more on Flypaper“What Happens When You Mess with the Keys of Iconic Movie Theme Songs?”

The version of the progression in “I’d Have to Be Crazy” uses a different harmonic rhythm and starts on the I chord instead of vi, but the emotional effect is the same. Nelson’s tune is in E, but again, I transposed into C for easier comparison.

The descending chromatic feeling you get from D7 to F minor to C is related to this timeless blues riff:

The E♭dim7 chord has three notes in common with D7 (F#, A, and C). The Dm7♭5 chord similarly has three notes in common with Fm (F, A♭, and C).

Still, the emotional impact of the blues cliche is very different. The blues is tragic, but it isn’t exactly sad the way that Kalinnikov and Willie Nelson are. I think of the blues as being more about overcoming or enduring sadness than just expressing it.

The Kalinnikov/Nelson progression is also related to the “Beatles cadence,” technically a combination major/minor plagal cadence. You can hear it around 1:00 in the bridge of “If I Fell.”

This tune is in D, but I’m once again putting it into C for discussion purposes. In the line, “But I couldn’t stand the pain,” the word “pain” lands on F, the major IV chord. In the next line, “And I would be sad,” the word “I” lands on F minor, the minor iv chord.

The Beatles cadence is effective, but it’s tamer and less chromatic than the Kalinnikov/Nelson chords. Why is the Kalinnikov/Nelson turnaround so sad? And why is it so much hipper than the Beatles cadence?

I think it’s because of the way it defies your expectations.

Here’s how D7 is supposed to work in the key of C: it temporarily puts you in the key of G. The most conventional (boring) chord to follow D7 is G7, followed by C. Let’s think of this in terms of scales. Here’s the C-major scale:

The scale implied by D7 is D Mixolydian, which contains the same pitches as C Lydian, the brightest of all the diatonic modes.

Landing on the G7 chord puts us back in C major. There’s a bit of tension from the F rising up to F# and then falling back to F, but basically, all is sweetness and light.

This is not what happens in the Kalinnikov/Nelson progression. Instead of trotting obediently around the circle of fifths like you expect, the D7 unexpectedly resolves to F minor instead. This surprising chord implies F Dorian, alternatively known as C natural minor. So you go from this bright C Lydian sound:

To this much darker C natural minor sound:

Instead of moving from the brightest scale to the second brightest, you’ve just moved to a decidedly dark place. Even the voice leading is depressing: the F# and A in the D7 chord slump dejectedly down to F and A♭ in the F-minor chord. And the Beatles cadence is weaker because it doesn’t lift up to F# before the descent into minor land.

Sadness is always that much sadder if you were expecting happiness.

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Ethan Hein
Ethan Hein

Ethan Hein is a Doctoral Fellow in Music Education at New York University. He teaches music technology, production and education at NYU and Montclair State University. With the NYU Music Experience Design Lab, Ethan has taken a leadership role in the creation of new technologies for learning and expression, most notably the Groove Pizza. He is the instructor of the free Soundfly course series called Theory for Producers. He maintains a widely-followed and influential blog, and has written for various publications, including Slate, Quartz, and NewMusicBox.

  • David

    The Beatles’ “In My Life” has a great example of the Kalinnikov/Nelson progression, at the lines “some are dead and some are living, in my life I’ve loved them all”, and similar places later in the song.

  • Brady Wade

    Great article, I love descending chord progressions, also using minor keys in the verses of a song leading to major in the chorus, seems like some of the saddest sounding songs, Sounds of Silence, Let it Grow, Lighter Shade of Pale, etc. are moving, but not only for the chords they chose, but also the tone of the vocals, melody and of course the lyrics, it’s really the overall marriage of these elements that make for a song that truly impacts me on a deeper level. I’ve really love writing, and it’s very satisfying when I can capture that winning balance that just makes everything work and sound wonderful, let alone touch lives along the way.

    Thanks for sharing this! Brady Wade

    • Ethan Hein

      I’ve been listening a lot lately to the chaconne from Bach’s D minor violin partita, and it does that minor to major to minor thing several times. So, so beautiful.

  • Patrick

    In your clip, you wrote the chords as:

    C D7 Fm C

    Without reading your analysis, I’ve done my own analysis,
    and let’s compare notes. I’m not going to go into a modal analysis, because
    for the average songwriter, especially country writers,
    it’s really too far out there, so I’m keeping it simple:

    I would play it with a pedal, (and I’m hearing it in the WN clip ) as follows:

    C D7/C Fm/C C

    F G7/F Bbm/F F

    The D7 without the C pedal and the Fm without the C pedal would be unremarkable, but the pedal is what gives them tension, ie., their “sadness” as you put it, but I’d use the term ‘tension’, that’s just me.

    The Bbm/F & Fm/C chords are derived from Gm7b5 & Dm7b5 which are a false cadence, given
    that they resolve into major instead of minor chords, ie., the C & F major chords, respectively, and the V chord which would normally follow the IIm7b5 chords are omitted for the sake of the descending voice in the progression.

  • Voice Of Saruman

    The Beatles’ cadence isn’t weaker, because it’s not a cadence, it doesn’t come at the end, you are comparing apples and oranges – that change in I’ll Be Back isn’t meant to function like the other examples you are referencing. Very cool article otherwise but I’m not sure why you had to inject that unnecessary criticism.

  • Dom Licciardi

    I would describe it in functional harmony terms. The vi and the I are Tonic chords. The phrase could begin with I or vi and have the same “feeling”. The next chord should be a subdominant ii, but instead is a II9. The composer uses substitution of the major9 to create tension. The ear expects a minor but gets a major with a major third on top to bring back the confusion and sadness. Next, you then hope for a V, but you get a iv instead which is also odd to the ear. The composer also uses substitution here, using iv and not IV. Also the large descending leap in the bass contributes. Overall, he mixes an odd progression with descending voice leading and a forbidden resolution from the iv to the I, which is not really a resolution, leaving an unresolved sadness.