The saddest chord progression ever

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Vassily Kalinnikov and Willie Nelson

The short-lived Russian composer Vasily Kalinnikov wrote this particularly lovely piece of music:

If you listen to this piece at 6:16, there’s a particularly beautiful and tragic chord progression. It’s in the key of E-flat, 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 great lullaby for my kids.

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. Willie’s tune is in E, but again, I transposed into C for easier comparison.

Here’s a mashup of Kalinnikov and Willie:

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

The Cdim7 chord has three notes in common with D7 (F-sharp, A, and C). The Dm7b5 chord similarly has three notes in common with Fm (F, A-flat 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/Willie Nelson progression is also related to the “Beatles cadence,” technically a combination major/minor plagal cadence. You can hear it at around 1:00 in “If I Fell,” in the bridge.

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/Willie Nelson chords. Why is the Kalinnikov/Willie Nelson turnaround so sad? And why is it so much more hip 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:

C, D, E, F, G, A, B

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

C, D, E, F-sharp, G, A, B

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

This is not what happens in the Kalinnikov/Willie 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:

C, D, E, F-sharp, G, A, B

To this much darker C natural minor sound:

C, D, E-flat, F, G, A-flat, B-flat

Instead of moving from the brightest scale to the second brightest, you have just moved to a decidedly dark place. Even the voice leading is depressing: the F-sharp and A in the D7 chord slump dejectedly down to F and A-flat in the F minor chord. (The Beatles cadence is weaker because it doesn’t have the lift up to F-sharp before the descent into minor land.) Sadness is that much sadder if you were expecting happiness.

  1. Why do Minor Chords Sound Sad?

    The Theory of Musical Equilibration states that in contrast to previous hypotheses, music does not directly describe emotions: instead, it evokes processes of will which the listener identifies with.

    A major chord is something we generally identify with the message, “I want to!” The experience of listening to a minor chord can be compared to the message conveyed when someone says, “No more.” If someone were to say the words “no more” slowly and quietly, they would create the impression of being sad, whereas if they were to scream it quickly and loudly, they would be come across as furious. This distinction also applies for the emotional character of a minor chord: if a minor harmony is repeated faster and at greater volume, its sad nature appears to have suddenly turned into fury.

    The Theory of Musical Equilibration applies this principle as it constructs a system which outlines and explains the emotional nature of musical harmonies. For more information you can google Theory of Musical Equilibration.

    Bernd Willimek

  2. The Willie Nelson tune is an interesting one because of the E pedal. Although I think you can argue that it’s still II-iv-I, I think you also make the case that the progression is more about the chromatic descending thirds than a standard chord progression. A lead sheet could reasonably be written as E – F#/E – F/E – E for those minor 2nd lovers out there. In either case, terribly, terribly sad. Even sadder if written in D minor.

  3. Similar to Kalinnikov’s sad chords, try Vaughan Williams Symphony 3, Pastoral. A collection of musical atmospheres based on his World War I field experiences….the trumpet solo he said he actually heard one night flowing across between the trenches. Yet there are still sounds of hope within the whole of it.