Maybe you’re not just emotional- how Adele makes you cry

I am sure that many of us can recall a time that we were driving in the car and a song came on that brought us to tears, or being at a concert with chills running down your spine. But, have you ever wondered why these physiological responses occur? Or how artists are able to evoke such strong emotion in listeners? Musicologists have found evidence that suggests that an appoggiatura could be the answer.

First and foremost, what is an appoggiatura? An appoggiatura is a musical device. Musical devices are used to create an emotional response in the listener. This is done by combining a blend of sound and imagery, as well as using certain words in a particular order. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines an appoggiatura as “an embellishing note or tone preceding an essential melodic note or tone and usually written as a note of smaller size. Throughout my search, appoggiatura has been defined in many ways, but the simplest definition is “an accented leaning note on a beat.” It often creates a dissonance that resolves to a consonance. Additionally, for all all those music buffs out there, it is not unlike a grace note (whatever that means). But, the coolest part about an appoggiatura is not what it is, but how artists use it, and how it affects listeners.

When listening to a song, listeners are able to connect with it and react to it because of personal experiences and culture. But, researchers have found that certain features in music are associated with producing strong emotions, and, you guessed it, an appoggiatura is one example of these features. This musical device was first explored twenty years ago. John Sloboda, a British psychologist, conducted a simple experiment that asked participants, who all stated that they loved listening to different types of music, to identify passages of songs that evoked a physical reaction, such as goose bumps or tears. Sloboda picked twenty of the most common passages, and analyzed their properties. He found that eighteen of the twenty contained an “appoggiatura.” Although Sloboda’s study did not explain why the note caused a physical reaction, or what exactly the note did to our brains, his research did provide an a path of study for musicologists.

First, let us focus on why the note caused a physical reaction. In order to explain this phenomenon, we must turn to a study performed by Dr. Martin Guhn, a psychologist at the University of British Columbia. Dr. Guhn defines an appoggiatura as an ornamental note that clashes with the melody, and this dissonance “generates tension in the listener.” “When the notes return to the anticipated melody, the tension resolves and it feels good.” Once the dissonance ends the listener often experiences chills. Also, when several appoggiaturas occur subsequently to one another this causes a cycle of tension and release, which can often provoke tears.

Dr. Guhn continued his search for the formula of a tearjerker with his colleague Marcel Zentner in a 2007 study. The experiment looked at musical excerpts from Mendelsohn’s “Trio for Panio” and Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” that reliable produce chills and then recorded the physiological reactions (heart rate, skin conductance, sweating) of listeners. These goose bump-provoking passages shared four features. First, they began quietly and then suddenly became loud. Second, they included an unexpected entrance of a new “voice,” whether it was an instrument or harmony. Third, they involved an expansion of the frequency; an example of this would be an instrument jumping up an octave to reflect the melody. Finally, they all contained unanticipated deviations in the melody or harmony (appoggiatura). These findings reveal that when music includes surprises in volume, tone, and harmonic pattern it can elicit the tingles along your spine and goose bumps down your arms.

Furthermore, when these features are combined with heartfelt lyrics and a beautiful voice, such as that of Adele, reward signals are sent to the brain that rival all other pleasures. Dr. Guhn explains that Adele’s song, “Someone Like You,” is a textbook example of a tingling-your-spine song. It is no surprise that this song is riddled with appoggiaturas, but the other stylistic elements Adele utilizes make this song an emotional roller coaster for listeners. As most of us know, the song begins with a slow, soft repetitive pattern kept inside a small frequency range – “I heard that you’re settled down, that you found a girl and your married now.” This creates an emotional and gloomy mood. When the chorus begins, Adele’s voice jumps up an octave and increases her volume, and the harmony shifts with the lyrics becoming increasing dramatic – “Sometimes it lasts in love, but sometimes it hurts instead.”


Listen to the Appoggiatura

The beginning of the chorus marks a break from the expected pattern, and listeners’ sympathetic nervous systems are activated. This causes our hearts to race and bodies to sweat, which can either be interpreted as positive or negative, happy or sad, depending on the situation. Despite “Someone Like You” evoking such strong sorrowful emotions, it is still remarkably popular. Why?

A neuroscientist, Robert Zatorre, 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 release of dopamine makes us feel good, whether the emotion is positive or negative. Zatorre also found that the number of goose bumps observed on listeners correlated with the amount of dopamine released during the song, even when the song was sad. These results suggest that songs that provoke greater emotions increase the amount of dopamine released, which intensifies our craving for the song.

Adele’s “Someone Like You,” was crafted by using a specific formula, and the outcome was a perfect tearjerker. By combining appoggiatura (as well as other small surprises) with an incredible voice and heartfelt lyrics, Adele has found the way to increase dopamine levels and keep listeners coming back for more. Perhaps dopamine is the key to success in the music biz.

External Links:

Listen to “Someone Like You”:

9 times Adele made us cry (of course):


One thought on “Maybe you’re not just emotional- how Adele makes you cry

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s