Can you use Spotify’s algorithm to find the saddest pop songs of all time?

People have a thing for sad songs. I know this because one of the most-viewed posts in the history of this site is one from April 2012 entitled The Top Ten Most Depressing Alternative Rock Songs with 116,000, third on the all-time list behind the home page and site archives.

But how sad is sad? Is there a selection of data points one could use to determine degrees of sadness in a song? Maybe. All we need are mathematics tuned to the right emotional frequency–or something like that.

Miriam Quick is a data journalist. She looked at Spotify’s new algorithm and used it to analyze a thousand tracks in order to determine the saddest pop songs to ever grace the charts. This is from the BBC.

When I was 15 I discovered The Smiths, a band whose name had by then long been synonymous with misery. But it was Morrissey’s unique style of being miserable – coquettish and laced with Northern English humour, flipping between self-pity and irony – that appealed to my teenage self. That and the grandiose but intricately layered sweeps of Johnny Marr’s guitar. I’d always cry at the same points in each song: the end of Hand in Glove, the chord changes before the chorus of Girl Afraid, the line in The Queen is Dead where he sings “we can go for a walk where it’s quiet and dry”. I’m still not sure why the last one had such an effect.

Two decades later, Spotify has built an algorithm that aims to quantify the amount of sadness in a music track. The streaming service has collected metadata on each of 35 million songs in their database, accessible through their web API, that includes a valence score for every track, from 0 to 1. “Tracks with high valence sound more positive (eg happy, cheerful, euphoric), while tracks with low valence sound more negative (eg sad, depressed, angry)”, according to Spotify. There are similar scores for other parameters including energy (how “fast, loud and noisy” a track is) and danceability, which is exactly what it sounds like.

So where does all this lead? Keep reading.

SPOILER: If you can’t be arsed to read the full article (although you really should because it’s cool), here are the five saddest songs to make it to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100:

1. The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face – Roberta Flack (number 1 in 1972)
2. Three Times a Lady – Commodores (1978)
3. Are You Lonesome Tonight? – Elvis Presley (1960)
4. Mr Custer – Larry Verne (1960)
5. Still – Commodores (1979)




Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 30+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

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