Can an Algorithm Tell Us the Saddest Song Ever Written?

It may not surprise you to learn that Spotify gave it a shot

Roberta Flack
Roberta Flack in the 1970s.
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

There are plenty of eminently quotable moments from Nick Hornby’s novel High Fidelity, which has now been adapted as both a movie and a television series. Perhaps the best of them comes when the novel’s narrator Rob is musing on what a lifetime of listening to sad music can do a person. “What came first, the music or the misery?” he ponders. “Did I listen to music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to music? Do all those records turn you into a melancholy person?”

Those questions may be rhetorical in the context of the novel, but evidently modern technology has found an intriguing way to reckon with them. What, exactly, is the saddest music in the world? (Not to be confused with Guy Maddin’s 2004 film The Saddest Music in the World, which Roger Ebert called “a mad, strange, gloomy, absurd comedy.”)

As Poppy Burton writes at Far Out, Spotify developed an algorithm to measure the relative sadness or happiness in a given song — or, in this case, a lot of songs. Burton points out that the methodology in use took some unexpected factors into consideration, including chart position and the general tempo. This might help explain why Roberta Flack’s “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” tops the list, followed by the Commodores’ “Three Times a Lady.”

It Sounds Like We Might Not Get New Nine Inch Nails Music For a While
Trent Reznor cited a few reasons for that decision

To be fair, everyone is going to have a very different answer to the question of what makes for the saddest song of all time. My own personal choice, for what it’s worth, is for Sparklehorse’s “More Yellow Birds,” which features the lyrics “Will my pony recognize my voice in hell?/ Will he still be blind, or do they go by smell?”

Still, revisiting Spotify’s list is clarifying to see just how challenging it is to attempt to quantify sadness. (Or, for that matter, happiness.) It’s unlikely that there will ever be a definitive saddest song ever written — and that’s probably okay.

The InsideHook Newsletter.

News, advice and insights for the most interesting person in the room.