Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Friday, February 17, 2012


This week, the WSJ ran an article on the anatomy of tear-jerking music, featuring Adele's song Someone Like you.
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.


The Opinionated Homeschooler said...

I'm so glad you posted this. It makes me feel less crazy. I choke up just listening to Britten's Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra, in the final movement when all the instruments of the orchestra, each working its own variation on the theme, are clashing with each other in what sounds likes is going to be uncontrolled chaos; then the horns slowly and powerfully overcome the cacophony with the unvaried theme. Good heavens, I'm tearing up just typing it. Sure makes it hard to do music appreciation properly with the kids when you can't even talk after the lesson.

Oh, and I once had to pull off the road when KMFA played Allegri's Miserere, because I couldn't see to drive.

The captcha in your combox says "Please prove you're not a robot." But reactions like this make me wonder if I really am. How manipulable!

Banshee said...

But it doesn't happen if the musicians and the listeners aren't both pouring themselves into the music, and if the composers didn't work to make these things moving in the first place.

Music is full of tricks that elicit emotional and other kinds of response. But a bag of tricks only gets you so far. I can mix blue and yellow paint the same way Van Gogh did, but my results aren't going to be too similar to his, or any other painters' results, because I didn't care enough about art to learn to draw and paint like them.

So you're not manipulateable, so much as willing to join into the music with your body.

Enbrethiliel said...


I didn't think much of Someone Like You the first time I heard it (on Glee, LOL!), but then I watched a clip from The X-Factor (UK, not US) in which someone sang it for her audition, and I--like some judges and many in the audience--cried.

mrsdarwin said...

OH, The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra gets me too. When I was younger I didn't want to be "soft", so I would deliberately close myself off to the effects of beauty so I wouldn't seem sentimental. Now I'm more open to being moved by art or music or literature, and I find that I frequently blink back tears when I listen to good music.

Enbrethiliel, I watched Adele sing "Someone Like You" in the video on the WSJ article, but I still can't get behind it. I find I'm more attuned to "Rolling in the Deep" -- I love the point in the second chorus where she inverts the chord structure under the refrain from Cm, Bb, Ab, Bb, Cm to Ab, Bb, Cm, Bb, Ab. I guess that's what the article would define as the music breaking suddenly from its expected pattern, and my sympathetic nervous system does respond.

gls said...

The final 10 minutes of Mahler's Second always get me.

Saint Louis said...

Just stumbled on your blog and was reading through, so this comment is really late to the party. For more contemporary music that can give you chills, I'd go with Radiohead.

May I suggest two of their songs:

Fake Plastic Trees ( at about the 3:00 mark, and especially...

Exit Music ( The whole song gives me chills. If I listen to it in the dark and on very loud, I can't keep away the goosebumps and usually want to cry.

For happier music, I can't do without some fine waltzes, especially Roses from the South ( If you don't feel pure joy at the segment from about 6:50-7:30, there's something wrong with you.

Anyway, nice blog.