U.K. singer Adele has won over fans and critics both here and abroad for her combination of skill and sincerity. Few of her contemporaries can belt out a heartbreaking (unrequited) love song quite like Adele and her Grammy-winning hit “Someone Like You” in particular has brought many a listener to tears since its release.
Calling on prior research by psychologists and neurologists, the WSJ piece identified a few key features of a successfully heartbreaking song. Get out your musical dictionaries because it all starts with an appoggiatura, a note “that clashes with the melody just enough to create a dissonant sound,” explains writer Michaeleen Doucleff.
An appoggiatura creates contrast and in emotional terms translate into “tension” for the listener, says Doucleff. The device also establishes a pattern—a kind of back and forth between melody and dissonance. When appoggiatura retreats and melody is restored, the listener feels a sense of relief or release. String together a number of appoggiaturas and a composer works the listener up into a bit of a state, which can result in goose bumps or tears.
According to the experts, Adele’s hit “Someone Like You” relies on this musical device throughout, but it also employs another key technique: it modulates from soft and melancholic to loud and dramatic. Moreover, these shifts in timbre and volume are united with lyrics that synch perfectly to the changes. For example, Adele sings softly about her old love settling down and marrying someone else in the first lines, then goes for the gusto with its greater significance to her, her voice strengthening for delivery of the angst-heavy lines: “Sometimes it lasts in love, but sometimes it hurts instead.”
The effect of this change is felt directly by the auditor/sad sack, making them feel a blend of elation and upset, which as the article notes may trigger the reward system of the brain – making listening to sad songs as rewarding as food or sex.