Some say the only songs worth hearing are those about love, politics and death. When it comes to the latter, there's certainly no shortage to be had: death has always preoccupied composers and musicians, many of whom have found powerful and original ways of coming to terms with the idea of mortality through music. But which are the most powerful examples? Here is our top ten list.


Best songs about death

1.Mahler’s 'Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen' from Rückert-Lieder

One of the last works that Mahler ever composed, this song is considered by many to be his farewell letter to life. It is certainly one of his most personal musical statements, painting a portrait of a solitary figure, withdrawing from all the turmoil of the world with which he used ‘to waste so much time.’

Looked at in isolation, the words come across as pretty bleak and regretful. In combination with the music however, they capture the richness of isolation, as well the sense of peace that comes with simply letting go.

2.Schubert’s 'Das Wirtshaus' ('The Inn'):from Winterreise

There are not many cheery moments in Winterreise, Schubert’s 1828 song cycle about a lonely, lovelorn wanderer, but this song must rank amongst its least cheery of all. The wanderer comes to a graveyard and wants to enter. But all the rooms at the ‘inn’ are taken, so he goes on his way with his faithful walking-stick. As a metaphor for the plight of those obliged to live a life for which they no longer have any appetite, it’s a pretty powerful one, and Schubert’s music - so resigned and weary - underlines the pain of it.

3. Ida Cox’s 'Last Mile Blues'

Considered by many to be the ‘Uncrowned Queen of the Blues’, the American singer Ida Cox was known for her raw sense of lyricism, which often addressed the struggles of black Americans from a female perspective. This song, recorded by Ida and her husband in 1940, is no exception.

In it, a woman tells the listener why she’s ‘grievin’ and feeling’ blue’—her man was just executed by the State. Meanwhile the music, which, in some ways leans more toward vaudeville than blues, is strikingly light of foot given the subject matter, and is all the more haunting for it.

4.Verdi’s ‘V'ho Ingannato, Colpevole Fu’ from Rigoletto

There are few scenes in opera more full of pathos than that moment when Rigoletto, having ordered the assassination of the dastardly Duke, is presented, instead, with the body of his own murdered daughter.

Translating as ‘Father, I deceived you,’ this is the song that Gilda sings, as momentarily revived, she declares to be glad to die for her beloved. For all the implausibility of a stabbed woman bursting into passionate song, there’s an awful emotional realism to this scene that makes it hard to watch, particularly when performed by singers - as it is in the video below - who really know a thing or two about acting.

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5.Trad Appalachian ‘O Death’

With roots in the early traditions of the southern Appalachian region of north America, this song first rose to fame in the 1920s, when it was recorded by the banjo player Moran Lee ‘Dock’ Briggs.

It takes the form of a conversation between a dying man and Death himself, with lyrics that stand out for their chilling frankness: ‘I'm Death I come to take the soul / Leave the body and leave it cold / To draw up the flesh off of the frame / Dirt and worm both have a claim.’ Attempts to analyse and explain the song have placed it on lips of everyone from a dying slave beaten by a cruel plantation mistress, to a Kentucky hill-preacher stricken by God for ignoring His call. Such is the universality of its message.

6. Trad Scottish ‘The Cruel Mother’

This disturbing Scottish ballad tells the story of a mother who gives birth to illegitimate children in the woods, kills them and buries them. On her return trip home, she sees some children playing and says that if they were hers, she would dress them up in fine garments and take care of them.

In response, the children compel her to recognise her responsibility for their deaths. Full of ancient folklore notions such as as the knife from which blood can never be washed, this is one of the most famous cautionary ballads, sung and recorded by a dizzying number of folk musicians over the years, most recently by Angeline Morrison on her 2022 ‘The Brown Girl and Other Folk Songs.’

7. Benjamin Britten’s ‘Funeral Blues’

W.H Auden’s poem 'Stop all the Clocks' , otherwise known as 'Funeral Blues' has always struck a chord with the public - ever since it first appeared in the 1936 play The Ascent of F6. This is a poem that everyone can relate to, whose themes of love, loss and mourning are universal, whose surface simplicity belies its internal depth - not least in the way it goes above and beyond the usual tropes associated with mourning (who, for example, would usually demand that a traffic policeman wear black cotton gloves?). No surprises, then, that it appealed to the foremost British composer of Auden's day, Benjamin Britten - a close creative partner of Auden's - who set it as a song for voice and piano, elevating it with his characteristic less-is-more approach.

8. Son House ‘Death Letter Blues’

The signature song of the Delta blues musician Son House, 'Death Letter Blues’ tells of a man who receives a letter informing him of the death of the woman he loves. He later views her body on the cooling board at the morgue, attends her funeral and returns home depressed. Benefiting from the power of Son House’s voice and the resonance of his guitar playing, this 1933 song is one of the most tragic and powerful in the Delta Blues repertoire, and a reminder of why Son House, who influenced scores of Blues singers, deserves more acclaim than he received.

9.Trad Welsh: Myn Mair

This poignant Welsh song, addressed to the Virgin Mary, is sung from the point of view of a mourner, who offers up everything in order to save the soul of their lover. Structured around a recurring plea to Mary at the end of each verse, it originates from a pre-Reformation time, when Wales was a Catholic country. As such, it is wrapped up in a certain amount of controversy: Myra Evans, the Cardiganshire teacher who compiled it in a songbook in the 1930s, recalled once how her mother was instructed not to sing it, lest she be thrown out of the chapel she belonged to.


10. Black spiritual ‘Steal away to Jesus’

There are a few theories circulating about this black spiritual, which was most likely penned by the former slave Wallace Willis (who also wrote ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’.) Some see 'Steal away to Jesus' as a coded message about the Underground Railroad, which promised freedom from slavery. Others interpret it, more literally, as an expression of longing for freedom through the release of death. Either way, it is a deeply affecting song, whose music - sombre and yet uplifting - is every bit as powerful as its words.


Hannah Nepilova is a regular contributor to BBC Music Magazine. She has also written for The Financial Times, The Times, The Strad, Gramophone, Opera Now, Opera, the BBC Proms and the Philharmonia, and runs The Cusp, an online magazine exploring the boundaries between art forms. Born to Czech parents, she has a strong interest in Czech music and culture.