Why Is Russian Music So Melancholic?

Sergey Nesterov reflects on why Russian music is so unique and what makes it so melancholic.

Why Is Russian Music So Melancholic?

What makes Russian music stand out from the rest of the world? That’s a good question. A lot of people may say that our music is simply stripped-down versions of famous western songs, but that is far from the truth. Actually, in some aspect it is much more complex and deep than any other music. In this article I will tell you why our music is so unique and what makes it so melancholic compared to western music. Perhaps it has some connection to the mythical Russian soul and famous Russian ache, also known as toska (Eng. - anguish) in our language? Let’s find out together.

Let’s start with the most significant difference which probably many of you have noticed if you are a fan of Russian music. It is the vibes and mood of our music. Very melancholic and depressed mood. You can hear this mood in almost every famous musicians’ songs. Like Splin, Zemfira and many others. And that is the main subject about which I would like to talk in this article. You see, it is not a secret that Russian music is on the different page comparing to western music. There are many great musicians, vocalists and songwriters out there and when you are comparing their mastership, the difference is obvious. Although in 2020 Russian music is very close to the western standards in terms of recording and mastership of instruments. But when we try to compare sad western music to ours, well, that’s where Russian musicians have no equals, we are definitely the best in terms of putting our deep depression into the music.

And here I would like to specify, of course there are different types of sadness and you can feel many other emotions when you are sad. You can be angry, become closed as a person, there’s even happy melancholy if I can put it this way. If you are a fan of western moody music you can easily remember many bands and artists who write depressive songs, like Radiohead, The Smiths and The Cure. Their songs are very melancholic and thought-provoking, but I think their music is still have vibes different to ours. I think one of the reasons why me and many other people feel this way is because there are many bands in the west who write sad music, but in our country almost every musician writes sad music.

Let’s try to remember the most famous Russian musicians of the last 30 years. Viktor Tsoi and his band Kino, Zemfira, Splin, Egor Letov, Noize MC, Delphin, BI-2, Nautilus Pompilius and many others come to my mind.

Do you know what they all have in common? They all have incomprehensibly depressing music and lyrics. Every band that I mentioned above have some sad song as their number 1, number 2 and number 3 hits in their catalogue. Have you heard Zemfira’s song “Iskala” (I have been looking for you all over) or “Ya hochu byt’s toboy” (I want to be with you) by Nautilus Pompilius? They can be easily called the most depressing love songs that many people have heard in their entire life. The second one is about a lyrical hero whose wife died in the fire accident and he is attempting suicide to meet her again and all that with the accompaniment of minor saxophone melodies.

Many people might say that Russian music seems so sad to us because we are native speakers of this language. They say that if everyone would’ve known English or French, people could have related to other popular western sad songs without a problem. But people who say things like that are actually a little bit wrong. Why? Because our music is literally much more melancholic in terms of notes our musicians use and arrangements than their foreign colleagues do. Just try to listen to them without paying attention to the lyrics, their melodies are so moody and melancholic. Things that come to mind is “Konchitsa Leto” (Summer will come to an end) by Victor Tsoy and his band Kino and “Vydykhay” (Breath out) by Noize MC. They have incredibly sad main melodies that can deeply affect listeners.

You might say that only rock musicians are writing sad music in Russia, modern artists from other genres don’t write songs like that. That is wrong too. All of the Russian music is centered around sadness and love, mostly unfortunate love. Let’s talk about famous Russian and western rap and hip-hop artists. Have you noticed that famous foreign singers don’t have hits about love and sadness? Whereas our rap and hip-hop singers do use sad emotions in their songs. Furthermore, if a western hip-hop artist has a popular song about love and sadness, there’s a high chance that it is not his most important song in minds of listeners, not that important to his discography. Let’s compare this situation to Russian music. Try to imagine that Noize MC didn’t write his famous “Vydykhay” or ”Vselennaya beskonechna” (Eternal Universe) or «Eto Lubov» (This is love) wasn’t written by Skriptonit and Basta didn’t write his famous “Medlyachok” (A Slow song). It is not that easy, because they are the most important songs in their discography. Do you see? We can’t even imagine the most famous Russian hip-hop artists without their sad songs! When western artists have songs about how life is so fun and how they spend their money on things, we have Russian artists who just write about how depressed they are and how love can hurt, and this is great!

If we are going to dive deep into the world of origins of rap and hip-hop music in the west, we might find that almost every artist of the 90s and 00s was writing songs about thug life, gangsters and things like that. They are 50 Cent, Snoop Dogg, 2Pac, The Notorious Big and others. And here comes an interesting part, although Russian rap and hip-hop artists stole style from their western colleagues, like wide pants, caps and chains, their music was not about being a gangster, but about love. Just try to remember most popular hip-hop songs and you will see what I’m talking about. Maks Korzh’s “Motule’k” (A Moth) – sad , Noize MC’s “Iordan” – depressing. Something more modern? Face’s album “Puti neispovedimy” (Paths are inscrutable) is easily one the darkest albums of last 5 years and LSP’s song “Telo” (The Body) is widely considered one of the saddest modern Russian hip-hop songs. Even the official music video for this song was dedicated to the death of Roma Anglichanin who was the bitmaker in this band and to say the least, it is very, very tragic and elegiac.

But why? Why have Russian artists been writing depressing songs for so many years? I think the reason why Russian musicians write depressive songs is Russian “toska” and the Russian soul. Russian “toska” is such a powerful word that even famous Vladimir Nabokov could not find a proper word to describe it in English speaking of the English version of “Eugene Onegin”.

As I see it, this feeling is so powerful and all-consuming, that we feel it differently compared to the rest of the world. Melancholy lives so deep inside the hearts of our people that it really became the part of us long time ago. But why? You may ask.

I think the Russians just understand sadness much deeper than the rest of the world because of all tribulation our nation had suffered for so many years. Our culture is filled with this feeling, just try to remember most famous novels of the 19th century; almost all of them have a melancholy vibe to them. For example, Dostoevsky, his novels are filled with sadness, but a lot of people love his books, even in Europe and America. From the 19th century till today talented people are putting into art the problems that they face in the reality. In the 19th century - wars, cold winters, poverty etc. In the 20th century people were scared of war and how people were oppressed by government. So, the Russian art became the mirror of people’s fear and worries. And music is the most accessible way for people to share emotions. I think the reason why our music is so melancholic because it is in our nature to be so emotional. Russian musicians understand sadness much deeper because we suffered a lot and that is why we learnt how to put our negative emotions into music so well.

I think that sadness and Russian soul are tied tightly together and are inseparable. Because of that Russian musicians can create such a beautiful and melancholic music. Everyone needs a little bit of sadness in their life to truly appreciate good moments. It is very good that our people can understand sadness so deeply and can put their emotions into music so precisely, that we feel full specter of emotions. That makes our music so unique and dear to our hearts.  

Text by
Sergey Nesterov