How to Play “Mad World” (Gary Jules, Tears for Fears)

Lisa Witt  /  Film Scores  /  UPDATED May 2, 2023

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“Mad World” is a must-play moody piano hit! And while the right-hand fingering can be tricky at times, this is a relatively simple song with a straightforward left-hand pattern. Get a head start with learning “Mad World” with our step-by-step piano tutorial.

But first, a little history behind the song…

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“Mad World” was originally by Tears for Fears

You might be most familiar with the Michael Andrews and Gary Jules version of “Mad World.” The song, featured in the movie Donnie Darko, was a big hit from the 2000s.

“Mad World” from Donnie Darko
Michael Andrews and Gary Jules

But did you know “Mad World” actually has its roots in 80s synth music? The song was originally written by Roland Orzabal and sung by Curt Smith of the band Tears for Fears and released in 1982. Orzabal wrote the song on acoustic guitar when he was 19 and was inspired by the synth sounds of Duran Duran. He wanted to make something similar, so the original version of “Mad World” sounds very different from the Donnie Darko version. Take a listen:

Original “Mad World”
Tears for Fears

But while Tears for Fears’ “Mad World” was successful, the Donnie Darko cover got very famous. In fact, it became the U.K. Christmas No. 1 in 2003.

Since then, the song has had lots of covers and appearances. It’s been featured in the video game franchise Gears of War, covered soulfully by Demi Lovato, and Curt Smith even covered the song with his daughter while in quarantine.

“Mad World” on American Idol
By Adam Lambert

“Mad World” Cover
By Demi Lovato

“Mad World” Cover
By Curt Smith and his daughter, Diva

“Mad World”
As seen in Gears of War

Playing Tips for “Mad World”

“Mad World” is written in F minor. The relative major key of F minor is A-flat major, so the song has three flats (B♭, E♭, A♭).

Pianote+ Members can download the full sheet music in our Members Area. If you’re not a Member yet, try Pianote for free.

Otherwise, here are some quick playing tips:

Learn the left hand first. The left-hand accompaniment is a simple pattern based on triads. Getting comfy with this part first can help ground the rhythm and make counting the right-hand part easier.

Listen to the song! Knowing the melody well makes a big difference! If the ties and counting in the right hand confuse you, listen to the song and play what you hear.

Use whichever fingering feels best for you. The right-hand melody fingering can be a little all-over-the-place, so find a fingering that works for you. I use 2-4-1-3-1-3-2-1 at the start.

Be aware of space. The hands get quite close together at times during this song, so be prepared to move aside for the other hand to play.

We hope you enjoyed this “Mad World” piano tutorial. Happy practicing!

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Lisa Witt has been teaching piano for more than 20 years and in that time has helped hundreds of students learn to play the songs they love. Lisa received classical piano training through the Royal Conservatory of Music, but she has since embraced popular music and playing by ear in order to accompany herself and others. Learn more about Lisa.

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