Why Adele’s “Someone Like You” and its appoggiaturas trigger so much emotion

In case you missed it, the WSJ had a great piece the other day (which spawned NPR coverage) titled Anatomy of a Tear Jerker.

From the piece:

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.

Here’s the whole song as performed in the WSJ studio:

And more details about the variations that often produce chills or other physical reactions:

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.

Even if the feeling is sadness, dopamine is released. We like dopamine.

I was thinking about some other songs that have a similar effect, but my ears aren’t really sharp enough to say whether the appoggiatura is a factor in all of them. Maybe I’m just reaching for the most obvious comparisons to the mood and vocals. Still my mind keeps coming back to a few piano-dominated Joni Mitchell songs, “Blue”, “The Last Time I Saw Richard”, and “A Case of You”:

Or check out James Blake covering Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You”:

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