Science with Moxie

Science with Moxie

Musical notes on neuroscience

A Song like Adele's


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.

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

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