Most of Dowland's music is for his own instrument, the lute. It includes several books of solo lute works, lute songs (for one voice and lute), part-songs with lute accompaniment, and several pieces for viol consort with lute. The poet Richard Barnfield wrote that Dowland's "heavenly touch upon the lute doth ravish human sense."
One of his better known works is the lute song "Flow my tears", the first verse of which runs:
''Flow, my tears, fall from your springs,
Exiled for ever, let me mourn
Where night's black bird her sad infamy sings,
There let me live forlorn.
He later wrote what is probably his best known instrumental work, Lachrimae, or Seaven Teares, Figured in Seaven Passionate Pavans, a set of seven pieces for five viols and lute, each based on "Flow my tears". It became one of the best known pieces of consort music in his time. His pavane, "Lachrymae antiquae", was also popular in the seventeenth century.
Dowland's music often displays the melancholia that was so fashionable in music at that time. He wrote a consort piece with the punning title "Semper Dowland, semper dolens" (always Dowland, always doleful), which may be said to sum up much of his work.
Dowland's song, "Come Heavy Sleepe, the Image of True Death", was the inspiration for Benjamin Britten's "Nocturnal after John Dowland for guitar", written in 1964 for the guitarist Julian Bream. This work consists of eight variations, all based on musical themes drawn from the song or its lute accompaniment, finally resolving into a guitar setting of the song itself.
Richard Barnfield, Dowland's contemporary, refers to the lutenist in poem VIII of The Passionate Pilgrim (1598):
If music and sweet poetry agree,
As they must needs, the sister and the brother,
Then must the love be great 'twixt thee and me,
Because thou lovest the one, and I the other.
Dowland to thee is dear, whose heavenly touch
Upon the lute doth ravish human sense;
Spenser to me, whose deep conceit is such
As, passing all conceit, needs no defence.
Thou lovest to hear the sweet melodious sound
That Phoebus' lute, the queen of music, makes;
And I in deep delight am chiefly drown'd
When as himself to singing he betakes.
One god is god of both, as poets feign;
One knight loves both, and both in thee remain.
The 1999 ECM New Series recording In Darkness Let Me Dwell features new interpretations of Dowland songs performed by tenor John Potter, lutenist Stephen Stubbs, and baroque violinist Maya Homburger in collaboration with English jazz musicians John Surman and Barry Guy.
In October 2006, Sting, who has been described as a fan of Dowland's , released an album featuring Dowland's songs titled Songs from the Labyrinth, on Deutsche Grammophon, in collaboration with Edin Karamazov on lute and archlute. They described their treatment of Dowland's work in a Great Performances appearance, saying that Dowland's music was the "skeleton" of their performances, but that the music "evolved" as they became more confident. To give some idea of the tone and intrigues of life in late Elizabethan England, Sting also recites throughout the album portions of a 1593 letter written by Dowland to Sir Robert Cecil. The letter documents Dowland's travels to various points of Western Europe, then breaks into an abrupt denial of charges of treason whispered against Dowland by unknown persons. He most likely was suspected of this for traveling to the courts of various Catholic monarchs and accepting payment from them greater than what a musician of the time would normally have received for performing.
Other interpretations of Dowland's songs have been recorded by Windham Hill artist, Lisa Lynne, (for her CD, Maiden's Prayer) and Lise Winne (for her Wing'd With Hopes, New Interpretations of Renaissance Songs CD).