The Ballad Of The Tearful: Why Some Songs Make You Cry A musical device called an appoggiatura creates tension and emotions, says one musical psychologist. Also, "a good song allows us, the listeners, to walk through the songwriter or composer's thoughts and emotions as they wrote the song," says Dan Wilson, who co-wrote "Someone Like You" with Adele.

The Ballad Of The Tearful: Why Some Songs Make You Cry

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What makes a song a weeper?

JOHN SLOBADA: Like your hair standing up on end, shivers going down your spine, a lump coming into your throat, even tears running down your eyes.


BLOCK: And why is this song in particular such an emotional powder keg?


ADELE: (Singing) I heard that you're settled down, that you found a girl and you're married now. I heard...

BLOCK: That's the aching ballad "Someone Like You," which won the British singer Adele one of her six Grammy Awards last night. Before that, we heard John Sloboda, professor of music psychology at London's Guildhall School of Music and Drama.

As we read in the Wall Street Journal, Sloboda has studied physical reactions to music. And he found that one musical ornament in particular triggers a strong emotional reaction. It's called appoggiatura from the Italian word "to lean."

And while it's tough to define, basically, it's not unlike a grace note, sometimes dissonant, that resolves into a main note. So when Adele sings the word "you" in the chorus, you're hearing appoggiatura.


ADELE: (Singing) Never mind, I'll find someone like you...

BLOCK: That little vocal dip there on the word you, well, according to Professor Sloboda, that is key in triggering an emotional response in a listener.

SLOBADA: And each time it happens, there's a little tension which is then released. So tension-release, tension-release each time, and this goes on quite subconsciously. Basically, the music taps into this very primitive system that we have, which identifies emotion on the basis of a violation of expectancy. So it's a like a little upset, if you like, which than gets resolved or made better in the chord that follows.

BLOCK: So what about that theory? Well, we ran it by someone who should know.

DAN WILSON: I'm Dan Wilson, and I wrote, with Adele, the song "Someone Like You."

BLOCK: Well, Dan Wilson, does the term appoggiatura mean anything to you?

WILSON: I saw the term appoggiatura for the first time in an article in The Wall Street Journal about why "Someone Like You" makes people cry. And it sort of talked about that Adele and I had used this secret trick of putting appoggiaturas in. But I didn't know what that was.

BLOCK: Dan Wilson says he now knows what it means, but he has another theory for why that song drives people to tears.

WILSON: A good song allows us, the listeners, to walk through the songwriter or composer's thoughts and emotions as they wrote the song. You know, it's why when you listen to The Replacements, you get this kind of giddy drunk feeling...


WILSON: ...probably because they were drunk when they recorded it and wrote their song, you know? And with Adele, we wrote this song that was about a desperately heartbreaking end of a relationship. And she was really, really feeling it at the time, and we were imaginatively creating that walked her back through that experience. And when you and I listen to the song, we walk in her shoes through that heartbreaking experience, but it's in our imaginations. And so instead of being devastating, we're like children playacting. We get to have an imaginative experience. But, hey, if I had a scientific method for making a heartbreaking hit, I would use it...


BLOCK: You'd do it every time.

WILSON: ...every day.


WILSON: I would be using it every day of the week. So - but it's not so easy.

BLOCK: Dan Wilson co-wrote the song "Someone Like You" with Adele and played piano on it.

Dan Wilson, congratulations on the Grammy. Thank so much.

WILSON: Thank you very much.


ADELE: (Singing) Sometimes it lasts in love but sometimes it hurts instead. Never mind, I'll find someone like you. I wish nothing but the best for you too. Don't forget me, I beg, I remember you said. Sometimes it lasts in love but sometimes it hurts instead...

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