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Why a Song Can Bring Tears to Your Eye. February 13, 2012

Posted by tkcollier in Lifestyle, Music.
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Why does Adele’s ‘Someone Like You’ make everyone cry? Science has found the formula.

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.”

Last year, Robert Zatorre and his team of neuroscientists at McGill University reported that emotionally intense music releases dopamine in the pleasure and reward centers of the brain, similar to the effects of food, sex and drugs. This makes us feel good and motivates us to repeat the behavior.

Measuring listeners’ responses, Dr. Zatorre’s team found that the number of goose bumps observed correlated with the amount of dopamine released, even when the music was extremely sad. The results suggest that the more emotions a song provokes—whether depressing or uplifting—the more we crave the song.

via Why Adele’s ‘Someone Like You’ Makes Everyone Cry – WSJ.com.

Chill-provoking passages, they found, shared at least four features. They began softly and then suddenly became loud. They included an abrupt entrance of a new “voice,” either a new instrument or harmony. And they often involved an expansion of the frequencies played. In one passage from Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 (K. 488), for instance, the violins jump up one octave to echo the melody. Finally, all the passages contained unexpected deviations in the melody or the harmony. Music is most likely to tingle the spine, in short, when it includes surprises in volume, timbre and harmonic pattern.

“Someone Like You” is a textbook example. “The song begins with a soft, repetitive pattern,” said Dr. Guhn, while Adele keeps the notes within a narrow frequency range. The lyrics are wistful but restrained: “I heard that you’re settled down, that you found a girl and you’re married now.” This all sets up a sentimental and melancholy mood.

When the chorus enters, Adele’s voice jumps up an octave, and she belts out notes with increasing volume. The harmony shifts, and the lyrics become more dramatic: “Sometimes it lasts in love, but sometimes it hurts instead.”

When the music suddenly breaks from its expected pattern, our sympathetic nervous system goes on high alert; our hearts race and we start to sweat. Depending on the context, we interpret this state of arousal as positive or negative, happy or sad.

Measuring listeners’ responses, Dr. Zatorre’s team found that the number of goose bumps observed correlated with the amount of dopamine released, even when the music was extremely sad. The results suggest that the more emotions a song provokes—whether depressing or uplifting—the more we crave the song.

With “Someone Like You,” Adele and Mr. Wilson not only crafted a perfect tear-jerker but also stumbled upon a formula for commercial success: Unleash the tears and chills with small surprises, a smoky voice and soulful lyrics, and then sit back and let the dopamine keep us coming back for more.

Comments»

1. Deanna Argenio May - March 13, 2013

Excellent explanation for why we cry!! I just finished listening to Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s “Christmas Canon Rock” my eyes brimming with tears. The song presents all the aspects listed in this article.

Mark Keller - January 31, 2014

Indeed!


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