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A Song like Adele’s

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Adele’s song Someone Like You has won both a Grammy and lots of lively speculation as to why people feel moved to tears when they hear it.

The Wall Street Journal recently ran an article that referenced a study by John Sloboda that found people experienced emotional reactions to music when it contained appoggiaturas, a musical device whose definition seems to be as hotly debated as the science and rationale behind the article itself. The WSJ article describes an appoggiatura as “a type of ornamental note that clashes with the melody just enough to create a dissonant sound.” Despite being a songwriter, I’m not a music theory buff.  So for a short auditory definition of the appoggiatura and a taste of the controversy surrounding its application to Adele, I’ll refer you to this piece from NPR entitled, “Another take on the ‘Appoggiatura.‘”

But the definition of the appoggiatura isn’t the only thing that is currently being debated. A number of articles have popped up recently protesting the reduction of tear-jerker songs to a simple formula. Of course, not everyone finds the same songs emotionally compelling, and as Isaac Schankler points out on NewMusicBox, the reasons for this can range from cultural to personal. Below is one quote I’d like to pull from his essay (though you should read the whole thing):

There’s one final piece of the puzzle missing. Experiments like Sloboda’s are effective when identifying structural features that are typical, that is, features that are commonly found in a large variety of musical examples. What they are not capable of is locating unusual features: that is, what makes a piece of music unique or special. But great songs, songs that we love, are by definition exceptional—there’s something about them that other songs don’t have. Otherwise every song with the same basic features would evoke the same exact reaction, which is clearly not the case.

In a study I covered on feeling chills in response to music, the researchers requested that the study participants select their own music that reliably gave them chills. Of course, the types of music and songs brought into the lab varied widely, as do the responses to Adele’s Someone Like You. Science can attempt to determine how a similar response (chills) occurs upon exposure to different stimuli (songs), and it can attempt to figure out why a common response (tears) is produced by one particular stimulus (an Adele song), but it will have a much harder time developing a formula that produces both sides of the equation reliably in all subjects (a formula for songs that produce chills or tears in everyone). We as humans are just too different from each other, and our individual reactions to pieces of music are informed by much more just than the formula and structure of them.

While scientific studies will probably never produce a formula for a song that elicits an emotional response in everyone who hears it, the beauty in studies like this is the “wondering why” coupled with the attempt to get a little closer to figuring it all out.

Besides, if science did come up with a proven formula to produce universal teary-eyed listening, the formula would be churned out so often that many people would become inoculated to its effects. The beauty of music lies in its unexpected twists and turns — the shape-shifting that is the basis of what Sloboda says exists in the appoggiaturas in Adele’s song. These constant and slight musical innovations is what will keep new songs constantly surprising us, and yes, bringing us to tears.


“Cry Me a River” by Flickr user sk8geek under Creative Common licensing.

Princess Ojiaku About the Author: Princess Ojiaku is a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin - Madison in Neuroscience and Public Policy. She is also a student of life, exuberant nerd, and musician. She often tweets her daily links of interest and digital personal mutterings. Follow on Twitter @artfulaction.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. colcifer 11:27 am 03/1/2012

    I’m a musician and I have to correct the definition provided by the WSJ. An appoggiatura can’t be a note that clashes with the melody because it’s part of the melody. Also, the example used isn’t musically significant. The dissonance is important, though, because it creates tension in the music and music in its fundamental form is just a tension and release.

    But in all seriousness, Adele’s a bit of a hack so that doesn’t really apply to whatever it is she does.

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  2. 2. DanielSw 12:25 pm 03/1/2012

    I’m surprised, and yet *not* surprised to see such a “psycho-babble”-esque “analysis” of the effects of Adele’s music in Scientific American.

    Though Science has an admittedly broad and profound mastery of the physical universe, it continues resolutely to ignore that other universe–the spiritual universe which each of us has and which each of is (or should be) master of.

    Though the “psychs” insist that this other universe is “imaginary”, it is factually and majorly the source of these emotions being discussed.

    Any musical terminology such as “appogiatura,” though useful to the design and performance of music, are yet mere artifacts.

    But that is what science has been doing for countless centuries–concentrating on mere artifacts of creation in a futile attempt to “reverse engineer” the “secrets of the universe.” Sounds impressive, doesn’t it.

    Well, I’m not impressed.

    Adele is a hack with both voice and melodies. But she’s got something there that “strikes a chord” with many. Fair enough. Flaunt it while you’ve got it, sister.

    The real test of music is its communication value–Adele’s included.

    The ability to communicate is a spiritual quality–a quality of LIFE.

    The classical masters have stood up well to this test. But then ANY music which factually endures as passed the test as well.

    Will Adele endure? We’ll see.

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  3. 3. notslic 7:45 pm 03/1/2012

    Colcifer and Daniel, You are the hacks. Music at it’s most fundamental form is mathematics, whether it is regarding the beat or the tone. Compared to the math of physics, music is rather tame and simple.

    The emotions that people feel when they hear music are what get the reactions that are described in the article. Lyrics are sometimes the key, but I have read about minor chords in themselves eliciting emotional response from listeners. They are the “sad” chords. This is the reason why the author and researchers could not come to a precise conclusion…is it the music or the lyrics?

    And how successful are you two compared to Adele? Jealous? Don’t get lost in your “spiritual universe” (A.K.A. Chronic, Meth, Smack or whatever). Try and get a life in THIS Universe. Any mature musician would appreciate the fact that Adele is charming and talented, whether they liked her music or not.

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  4. 4. notslic 8:11 pm 03/1/2012

    My Dear Princess. Thank you for this upbeat and finely written article. Let’s take it a step further. How does this relate to other emotions? Imagine a huge Heavy Metal mosh pit or a Gospel Revival. Goosebumps or tears are not the only emotions that music can amplify (pun intended). Songs and stories (true or not) have been a way to manipulate emotions for thousands of years.

    I think that the emotional response to lyrics is caused by our genetic desire to be a part of a group, which has a better chance of surviving than an individual. But the emotional response to a particular “sad” note or tone is either learned…or one of those crazy mysteries of life that we will never discover.


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  5. 5. kev1337 9:23 am 03/2/2012

    to take this idea of emotion manipulation a step farther… could this effect have led to the elevation of spiritual leaders in social circles so long ago?

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  6. 6. ckt510 7:00 pm 06/20/2012

    I am a musician and although adele’s music may not be the most technical music out there, there really is something beautiful about it.
    Her music is literally magical, it apparently woke up a 7 year old girl from a coma, check it out.

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