Does Adele’s ‘Someone Like You’ make you cry? Here’s why

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A musical ornament called "appoggiatura" creates a dissonant sound in a song, triggers emotions

MANILA, Philippines – Do you usually find yourself getting emotional, even to the point of crying, when listening to Adele’s “Someone Like You?” Well, there is a scientific alibi that you can use if someone catches you shedding a tear while listening to this favorite pop anthem.

A few decades back, British music psychologist John Sloboda of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama conducted a study on the physical responses people had to music. The study revealed that a certain ornamental note could sometimes trigger strong emotions in a listener.

The said musical device is called an “appoggiatura,” a type of note that clashes with the melody, creating a dissonant sound. The word, which is Italian, means “to lean.”

A Wall Street Journal (WSJ) story used Sloboda’s study to help explain why Adele’s hit song, as well as similar tearjerkers, elicit strong emotions in many listeners.

The article says in “Someone Like You,” you can hear the appoggiatura when the song reaches the word “you” in the chorus (click to listen to part).

The Sloboda study points out, the slight change in the tone in the word “you” triggers the emotional response in the listener.

“Our brains are wired to pick up the music that we expect,” Sloboda tells NPR in another article. “[When] that chord is not quite what we expect, it gives you a little bit of an emotional frisson, because it’s strange and unexpected.”

The WSJ story says the song, written by Adele and Dan Wilson, is “sprinkled with ornamental notes similar to appoggiaturas,” and the pitch modulation made by the singer creates a “mini-roller coaster of tension and resolution,” says another psychologist, Martin Guhn, who co-wrote a study on the subject.

You would then ask: why is such an intensely sad song so popular? The WSJ story said neuroscientists, specifically a team from McGill University led by neuroscientist Robert Zatorre, reported that such intense music also triggers dopamine release in the pleasure and reward centers of the brain.

Co-writer Wilson, meanwhile, in the NPR article, has another theory on why the song is popular: “A good song allows us, the listeners, to walk through the songwriter or composer’s thoughts and emotions as they wrote the song… With Adele, we wrote this song that was about a desperately heartbreaking end of a relationship, and she was really, really feeling it at the time, and we were imaginatively creating.”

“That walked her back through that experience. And when you and l listen to that song, we walk through her shoes through that heartbreaking experience — but it’s in our imagination,” he added. –

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