The British singer Adele is now famous all over the world for her hits, especially the ballad “Someone Like You” which has the uncanny power to make listeners cry.
What explains the magic of this song? Although personal experience and culture are also factors in individual reactions, researchers have found that some features of music are consistently associated with producing such strong emotions in listeners. Along with heartfelt lyrics and a powerhouse voice, these structures can send reward signals to the human brain that can rival any other pleasure.
One such feature is a musical device called an appoggiatura, which can trigger tears or goose bumps. A type of ornamental note, an appoggiatura clashes with the melody just enough to create a dissonant sound, generating tension in the listener. When several appoggiaturas happen next to each other in a melody, it will generate a cycle of tension and release and provoke an even stronger reaction, and that is when the tears start to flow.
“Someone Like You” is sprinkled with ornamental notes similar to appoggiaturas. During the chorus, Adele also slightly modulates her pitch at the end of long notes just before the accompaniment goes to a new harmony, creating mini-roller coasters of tension and resolution.
If the song generates intense sadness among listeners, why it is popular? A research study found that the more emotions a song provokes—whether depressing or uplifting—the more we crave the song.