The Best Graduation Songs of All Time
As May and June roll around, celebrate the past accomplishments and glimmering future of your favorite grad with these heartwarming songs.
As graduation season looms, it’s often helpful for grads (and their loving parents) to look to graduation songs for help with all the feelings that come with commencement, both beautiful and bittersweet. The sense of an ending combined with nostalgia can often be too much—but, thankfully, many talented artists have parsed out these complicated feelings with the poetry of lyrics.
We asked Real Simple’s Facebook fans to share their favorite graduation songs: from songs that were performed or played at commencement ceremonies to songs that just perfectly encapsulate the feelings that come with the celebration. Some deal with the matter subtly, while others are more blunt about the feelings the occasion brings. Whether you’re looking for something to aid reflecting on how much you’ve grown, or just looking for a song to set the picture slideshow to, these 13 graduation song favorites will do just the trick.
One Voice, Barry Manilow
Even if she is a driven, straight-A student with impressive postgrad job offers, she might feel a little bit listless about life outside the walls of her alma mater. Thankfully, Barry Manilow has just the cure—the titular opener to his 1979 studio album. Though it starts out small, One Voice constantly builds during chorus and verse, creating a powerful reminder of the effect just one person can have on the world if they're persistent. Just one listen is sure to inspire and remind her that no matter what she ends up doing, as long as she believes in herself and pushes through, it will change the world.
Forever Young, Rod Stewart
Though commencement might make your graduate feel a sense of an ending, as a parent, you look at it as the beautiful beginning of the rest of their lives. And that can be a bit overwhelming. In this 1988 sprawling rock classic from his album Out of Order, Rod Stewart perfectly encapsulates the emotions parents might be feeling during this transitional time: a mix of pride, unwavering support, as well as a loss to where all the time went. Stewart’s lyrics read as a calming blessing of love and youth from parent to child as both recognize they are growing older.
I Will Remember You, Sarah McLachlan
Though McLachlan’s 1993 song is an emotional ode to the end of a relationship, the song has been renewed as a favorite graduation song. It speaks to many graduates who might be moving across the country to start a new life, either to work or attend college. Though they might be leaving friends and family behind, recent grads will feel comforted by McLachlan’s validation of the bittersweet nature of endings: both an acknowledgement of how one must move forward and take delight, not wallow, in the memories previously made.
Good Riddance (Time of Your Life), Green Day
Among their catalog of otherwise snarky tunes is Green Day’s stunningly sincere classic, Good Riddance (Time of Your Life). The pop-punk track off the band’s 1997 album Nimrod encapsulates nostalgia with its distinct, yet simple melody and orchestral overtones. Singer Billie Joe Armstrong’s earnest delivery of lyrics like “So make the best of this test, and don’t ask why. It’s not a question, but a lesson learned in time,” and “For what it’s worth, it was worth all the while.” We dare you to listen to it without thinking of all the good times past.
You Raise Me Up, Josh Groban
Even if you’ve heard this song one million times, we guarantee you’ll shed a tear when you listen to Groban’s 2003 breakout with attentive, fresh ears. Whether it’s the baritone’s inspirational lyrics, the song’s Celtic-inspired instrumentation, or the gorgeous chorus, you’ll definitely be moved as the empowering ballad progresses. Its beauty will fill anyone with heartfelt gratitude for coaches, teachers, mentors, and parents—all the important people who have supported you along the way.
Verge, by Owl City and Aloe Blacc
This fist-pumping, catchy electronic track leads Owl City’s fourth album, The Midsummer Station. A collaboration with soulful singer Aloe Blacc (you might know him from his hits The Man, I Need a Dollar or his track on the Hamilton Mixtape), this is definitely is a graduation song for the new generation. Unlike others on this list, the duo’s take on commencement isn’t subtle—the music video directly addresses graduation day! Its celebratory, fun beat isn’t sappy or cheesy, either. With lyrics like “edge of the earth and we’re touching the sky tonight, out on the verge of the rest of our lives,” it genuinely revs listeners up about the future.
These Are The Days, 10,000 Maniacs
The 10,000 Maniac’s 1992 album Our Time In Eden features this breezy commencement classic about living in the moment. Natalie Merchant’s unforgettable come-as-they-may delivery of lyrics like “It’s true that you are touched by something that will grow and bloom in you” sound like a rush of endorphins, a joyous celebration of the unknowns in life. This uplifting and sunny hit is all about trusting the road ahead—it’s definitely a must listen for any new graduate.
Don’t You (Forget About Me), Simple Minds
Known for bookending the 1985 coming-of-age film The Breakfast Club, Don’t You (Forget About Me) has become a quintessential graduation song over the years. And for good reason—the pop rock classic perfectly encapsulates the high school experience. Its poetic lyrics, rhythmic beats, powerful vocals, idiosyncratic moments, and “hey, hey, hey!” hook feel just like roaming the halls amid the criminal, princess, brain, athlete and basket case peers—all people you will never forget.
Graduation (Friends Forever), Vitamin C
If anything is remembered about pop group Vitamin C, it’s Colleen Ann Fitzpatrick’s electric yellow hair and this graduation song. Rapped over a funky beat and a sample of Pachelbel’s Canon, Graduation (Friends Forever) explores the complicated feelings that come from leaving the familiar for the unknown and gearing up for the inevitable changes that happen as we grow up. Since being released in the late 90s, the song has stuck around to soundtrack many graduation photomontages.
I Hope You Dance, Leann Womack
After graduation comes many opportunities where one must decide if they’re going to shrink, stay the same, or grow. This timeless ballad by Lee Ann Womack stresses the importance of keeping childlike curiosity alive as one heads into adulthood. The song urges younger generations to always push past complacency and “dance” through life.
Climb Every Mountain, The Sound of Music
Many tunes from Rogers and Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music have stood the test of time—but Climb Every Mountain is truly a stand-out. This simple, poignant song stresses the importance of dedicating your life to following “A dream that will need all the love you can give every day of your life, for as long as you live.”
That’s What Friends Are For, Dionne Warwick
Life isn’t going to be any easier or harder than it was during school—just different. But thankfully the friends you were blessed with are along for the ride, too. Warwick’s power-packed ballad—featuring Elton John, Gladys Knight, and Stevie Wonder—channels the importance of having friends to rely on as time passes.
Unwritten, Natasha Bedingfield
Natasha Bedingfield’s enchanting 2004 hit channels the excitement grads might feel as they head into the next stage of their lives. This perfectly positive pop song doesn’t get stuck in the anxieties of the unknown—instead it teaches you to revel in the beauty of what a blank slate actually means: limitless possibility to learn, explore, and define yourself.