Why does the violin lend itself so well to sad music?


“You Just Can’t Play A Sad Song On A Banjo”, sang Willie Nelson. But violins are perfectly suited to producing the sad music and expressing the down side of human emotions. The formant nature of a bowed sound means that violin players are able to replicate many aspects of the human voice. The tone frequencies that come with a violin resonate within the echo chambers of our ears and in the depths of our chests. It’s no surprise that movies will exploit this power of musical strings when they want to pull on our heart strings.

Sad violin music
Sad violin music

Here are 3 violin pieces that illustrate just how emotionally powerful violins can be in the hands of a maestro.

First Movement: Niel Gow’s Lament

Niel Gow was the most famous Scottish fiddler of the eighteenth century: “the father of Scottish fiddle music”. He composed a great many dance tunes which are still heard at ceilidhs and  Scottish country dances. He also had a wide knowledge of traditional Gaelic tunes which informed his compositions. This piece is often titled: Niel Gow’s Lament For His Second Wife.

He married twice. After his first wife died, Niel married Margaret Urquhart in 1768 and they went on to share a happy marriage until she died in 1805. Niel was hurt by her death and stopped playing the fiddle for a while. When his friends finally convinced him to pick it up again, the first thing he played is said to be his ‘Lament for the Death of his Second Wife’.

Listening to the piece you hear echoes of every Scottish tune you’ve ever known, but they’re all just out of reach. The melody flows and halts, holding notes longer than you think possible before tumbling on like a mountain stream down a rocky brae. There is an underpinning melancholy delivered by the rise and fall of the restless melody – there seems to be more fall than rise. How is that possible?

Second Movement: Joseph Achron’s Hebrew Melody

Born in Russia in 1886, Joseph Achron studied violin and composition at the St Petersburg conservatory.  He developed an interests in Jewish Folk Music and this tradition underpinned a lot of his compositions. Moving to United States of America in the 1920s, he continued his involvement with classical orchestras but also gained a reputation for the quality of music he composed for movies: incidental music and main themes.

From the first notes of this piece, you’re transported to an ancient and arid Hebrew land of toil and hardship. The intervals are redolent with the sad music of the region, you can sense the desert in the gaps, feel the longing in the way notes are held and yet the state remains the same. It feels like it’s been that way for millennia.

Third Movement: Nino Rota: The Godfather Main Title Theme

This piece comes from a completely different space. Written specifically for a feature film, it evokes a time and place. Warmth and melancholy, longing and belonging. It feels like you’re being transported back in time. In this Andre Rieu interpretation, when the full orchestra provides the hit of lush strings, you know you’re being manipulated by a master of presentation. The mood changes in an instant, so many times in such a short period. The original cinema theme uses “peasant” instruments more than violins, but the strings still give the piece it’s flow and it’s sorrowful nature.

Born in to a musical family in Milan, Giovanni “Nino” Rota was an Italian composer and pianist who was well known for his original film scores. He worked with Italian directors like Fellini and Zeffirelli as well as with Coppola (who directed The Godfather trilogy). And he produced a great many pieces from the  1930s until his death – over 150 scores for a wide range of films. He also wrote concertos and chamber music pieces.

With such a strong melody, it is inevitable that someone should attempt to set lyrics to it. Speak Softly Love was turned into a chart hit in the US by Andy Williams. Other versions were popularised in Italian, Sicilian, French and Spanish shortly after the movie was seen to be such a hit.


What makes a musical instrument suitable for sad music? Those instruments deemed most capable of expressing or representing sadness are those which closely match the characteristics of sadness in human speech. As with a human voice, a “sad” instrument can be played more quietly, slower, with a small, gentle range of pitch movements.  It has a relatively lower pitch, with a darker timbre. With this in mind, it is no wonder that violins are well suited to presenting sad violin music.

Despite the fact that bowed instruments (in general) and violins (in particular) are suited to sad, slow, emotional songs, how come they are used to enthuse and exhilarate as well? That just goes to show the proven versatility and strength of the violin.

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