Anatomy of a Tear Jerker: Why does Adele make everyone cry? by Michaeleen Doucleff

Has science has found Adele’s formula?

By MICHAELEEN DOUCLEFF

Adele accepts her award for best pop solo performance for her iconic and emotional “Someone Like You.” (Mario Anzuoni / Reuters)

On Sunday night, British singer-songwriter Adele grabbed six Grammy awards. Three of her six wins were for her rollicking hit “Rolling in the Deep.”

But it’s her ballad “Someone Like You” that has risen to near-iconic status, due in large part to its uncanny power to elicit tears and chills from listeners. The song is so famously sob-inducing that “Saturday Night Live” recently ran a skit in which a group of co-workers play the tune so they can all have a good cry together.

What explains the magic of Adele’s song? Though personal experience and culture play into individual reactions, researchers have found that certain features of music are consistently associated with producing strong emotions in listeners. Combined with heartfelt lyrics and a powerhouse voice, these structures can send reward signals to our brains that rival any other pleasure.

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.

Continue reading