Set aside the fact that having heard Adele’s song “Someone Like You” so often may want to make you cry from trying to escape, science has now found an answer to why the tear-jerker makes you sob.
[div class=attrib]From the Wall Street Journal:[end-div]
On Sunday night [February 12, 2012], the British singer-songwriter Adele is expected to sweep the Grammys. Three of her six nominations are for her rollicking hit “Rolling in the Deep.” But it’s her ballad “Someone Like You” that has risen to near-iconic status recently, due in large part to its uncanny power to elicit tears and chills from listeners. The song is so famously sob-inducing that “Saturday Night Live” recently ran a skit in which a group of co-workers play the tune so they can all have a good cry together.
What explains the magic of Adele’s song? Though personal experience and culture play into individual reactions, researchers have found that certain features of music are consistently associated with producing strong emotions in listeners. Combined with heartfelt lyrics and a powerhouse voice, these structures can send reward signals to our brains that rival any other pleasure.
Twenty years ago, the British psychologist John Sloboda conducted a simple experiment. He asked music lovers to identify passages of songs that reliably set off a physical reaction, such as tears or goose bumps. Participants identified 20 tear-triggering passages, and when Dr. Sloboda analyzed their properties, a trend emerged: 18 contained a musical device called an “appoggiatura.”
An appoggiatura is a type of ornamental note that clashes with the melody just enough to create a dissonant sound. “This generates tension in the listener,” said Martin Guhn, a psychologist at the University of British Columbia who co-wrote a 2007 study on the subject. “When the notes return to the anticipated melody, the tension resolves, and it feels good.”
Chills often descend on listeners at these moments of resolution. When several appoggiaturas occur next to each other in a melody, it generates a cycle of tension and release. This provokes an even stronger reaction, and that is when the tears start to flow.
[div class=attrib]Read the entire sob story here.[end-div]
[div class=attrib]Image of Adele. Courtesy of The Wall Street Journal (illustration) Associated Press (photo); Universal Music Publishing (score).[end-div]