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. 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. Finally, all the passages contained unexpected deviations in the melody or the harmony. Music is most likely to tingle the spine, in short, when it includes surprises in volume, timbre and harmonic pattern.I don't happen to care all that much for this particular song, but I do have two examples of music that reliably move me to tears, or at least chills.
I always choke up at the last section of Stravinsky's The Firebird, where the thematic chords build up and then resolve into the cadence (about 2:56 in this video). There's something so beautiful and thrilling about the way the music grows more and more insistent and dramatic and then suddenly drops in volume at the beginning of the cadence. And the swell of the ending can draw tears, too.
The article explains:
When the music suddenly breaks from its expected pattern, our sympathetic nervous system goes on high alert; our hearts race and we start to sweat. Depending on the context, we interpret this state of arousal as positive or negative, happy or sad.
Here's another of my misty favorites:
Anyone who remembers "Beef: It's What's For Dinner" knows Hoedown, from Aaron Copland's Rodeo. One hears the main melody several times before Copland throws some dissonance under it, first heard here at 1:09 and then more powerfully at 2:52. Maybe the telegraph-like rhythm at the end throws my heart rate off, but I love it.