Tears in a Bottle – Unpacking the science of the musical tear jerker.

If a recent Wall Street Journal article is to be believed, Adele’s song “Someone Like You” is bound to elicit strong emotions in listeners, because it contains certain structural elements that make human beings more likely to react to it emotionally.

According to the study cited in the article, “Music is most likely to tingle the spine, in short, when it includes surprises in volume, timbre and harmonic pattern.”  In her performance of “Someone Like You,” Adele frequently employs a musical technique in her vocal called an appoggiatura, which is sort of a tonal hiccup that the article describes as “a type of ornamental note that clashes with the melody just enough to create a dissonant sound.”

To sum up, the article states that a song that uses musical techniques to surprise you, or set you slightly on edge, then release that tension over and over in “mini-roller coasters of tension and resolution” is more likely to elicit a strong emotional response, be it chills or tears.  This, in turn, causes the body to release dopamine, which rewards you for the experience and makes you want to repeat it.  Therefore, if you successfully include these elements in a song – along with salient, emotional lyrics – you’re guaranteed to have a hit tearjerker, right?

Now, if you’re like me, here’s the point where your bullshit meter starts going off.  In fact, my first response to this article was to write an angry, fist-shaking diatribe against the wrong-headedness of trying to pin down art with science.  A pretty strong emotional response – maybe the article contained lots of a appoggiaturas.

But, calmer heads have prevailed, because when you really think about it, there’s probably something to all the elements mentioned in the article.  Maybe a large percentage of really high-emotional-impact music does contain those elements.  I can think of quite a few other examples that seem to fit.  And yet the analysis doesn’t quite ring true to me.

What’s missing is art.

The reason why I find Adele’s song so emotional is because I feel as if her emotions are coming across through her singing, and they feel real and genuine to me.  Whether you call it appoggiatura or just plain soul, I feel that her voice is on the verge of breaking into tears at key points in the song (as when she almost squeaks “don’t forget me, I begged…”), and that generates a sympathetic response in me, and so I feel very emotional, too.

Ding!  Lightbulbs!  This is the thing that art — and great storytelling — does so well.  Artistic expression hits home with an audience in that moment where the teller takes messy, raw — even ugly human emotion, and distills it into something beautiful.

Adele’s performance of the song is loaded with emotion, and her vocals feel like they are about to fly out of control — but then she pulls it together, and out comes these moments of real beauty.  A tearjerker is born in the moment when symmetry, beauty, and something I can only describe as a bright pure light shines out of a messy, real, imperfect jumble of human emotions.  This is the roller coaster I find myself on when I listen to Adele sing.

So is it just art, or is there something technical going on as well — something science can point to and find in common with other emotional pieces of music?

I won’t presume to be able to tell you whether Adele’s performance on this recording is as pure an emotional expression as it seems to be, or whether it’s all honed musical technique and artifice.  It’s probably somewhere in-between.

Performance is all about using technique to arrive at something like the true state of emotions required by the given circumstances of a story — and then bringing the performer and the audience along on a journey together.  And Adele shows a mastery in her performance that makes the listener stop in their tracks and experience this song in a visceral way.

However, I strongly believe that you could study the musical formula for a tearjerker until you were blue in the face, and master every single element identified, and still make a song that isn’t half as powerful as “Someone Like You.”  Underneath all Adele’s technique there is a light of beauty that simply cannot be captured by a scientific description of her performance.

And now it’s time for a Pepsi challenge.

First, here’s a cover of the song:

The singer has a very good voice, and I believe she utilizes the technique of appoggiatura at the moments specified in the article — in fact, I think she uses it much more, if jazzy blue notes count.

It’s technically decent, and theoretically contains many of the same variations of dynamic, tone, and pattern as the original.

And yet it completely fails to land with me on an emotional level.

Now, here’s the video for Adele’s original recording of the song:

Close your eyes, and just listen to her voice (the video aspect doesn’t do the song justice).

I don’t hear a formula, and I don’t see a man behind the curtain pulling any levers.  I feel something that seems pure, real, and salient enough to elicit a strong response in me over and over again.

Can someone please pass me a tissue?

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