This is Why Art People Don’t Like Science

It’s articles like this one right here.

For some reason, media outlets all over the place are snapping up a story that uses a 20-year-old study to explain why Adele’s “Someone Like You” is a magnificent, emotionally moving song. If you’re guessing that it’s because Adele and Dan Wilson wrote the melody to forge the perfect interplay between tension and release while crafting subtle, beautiful lyrics that appeal to sufferers of heartbreak from all walks of life, according to these journalists, you would apparently be wrong. The songwriters “stumbled” upon it. It took science to explain the song’s emotional appeal to all of the ignorant artists.

This is, of course, unfair for me to say. The study did not seek to explain as accident what musicians everywhere toil at for decades. The journalists did. Just check out these headlines:

“Science finds formula for why Adele’s Someone Like You is a tear-jerker”

Funny, since they could have asked almost any music composition professor.

“REPORT: Adele’s “Someone Like You” Scientifically Formulated to Make You Cry”
Musically formulated. It was the musicians who did it. Science explained it, but the musicians are the ones who made it happen.

The Real Reason Adele’s ‘Someone Like You’ Makes Us Weep
The real reason. Those idiot songwriters thought they knew what they were doing, the poor dumb saps.

Don’t get me wrong: It’s awesome that scientists can use a popular song to get people interested in how the brain works. It’s just that the songwriters knew that these notes would elicit this reaction. It’s nothing new to them. And beyond that, the things they (the journalists and whichever scientist put this out as a press release to ride on Adele’s Grammy coattails) are attributing to these brain changes are just wrong.

Hear me out.

This is an F major-seven chord. Its notes look distinctly like Muppet characters, but that is neither here nor there.

All songs are built upon chords like this. Most chords are built according to their consonance — that is, the distances between the notes are exactly the right size to make the notes work well together rather than clash, or cause dissonance. Human brains are comfortable with consonance. It’s nice and predictable. It’s getting up at 7, going to work, coming home, watching some TV, and going to bed.

But when you introduce a note that isn’t one of the notes in the chord, a note that has a smaller distance between it and another note than is required to stay consonant, well…that’s when things get interesting.

It adds variety to a static sound. It adds color, as musicians say. Dissonance throws your nice and predictable world for a loop. It’s waking up to a leak in your roof or opening the door to a see a giant check addressed to you or suddenly falling in love. Because of the way chords are laid out, pretty much any note that is not one of the notes in the chord can cause dissonance.

Pssst...pretend that sad blue one is an F#. Oops.

When we hear dissonance, we have an uncontrollable urge to hear it resolve, or move back up or down so that it matches one of the notes in the chord. Dissionance leads to emotional tension, which can only be released with a nice harmonic resolution. This urge is what the studies in question are talking about, for which they use the overwrought term appoggiatura. This term is usually used to denote a quick dissonance, not one that sits defiant atop a harmony for a good period of time the way the scientists mean, but I get their drift. (A person who does not get their drift is the author of the Wall Street Journal article’s image, who took the word literally. That arrow has no idea what’s going on.)

So let’s count the appoggiatura, or simply notes that don’t match the chord, in “Someone Like You.” I think we can all agree that the chorus is the most chill-inducing, so let’s start there. I have mapped out the notes, not the rhythms or repeats, and colored each dissonance red. (I also kept both staves in treble clef to simplify it for the laypeople. We cool, musician folk?)

Really, there’s not a whole lot of dissonance going on. The notes that are dissonant happen really quickly. Nothing really sticks out as a “please resolve, please resolve, please resolve” moment except for the last chord of the “you” the first time she sings the words “someone like you.” Let’s check out the verse next.

There’s the stuff. See how there are more red notes the further along in the verse you get? The reason there’s so much dissonance is because the song keeps repeating the same four notes while the chords move around. This is a classic songwriting tool, because it adds lots of tension without a lot of work.

So, yes. There’s dissonance and resolution in this song. But no more than any other. Plus, the chorus is the really emotional section, and it has less dissonance than the rest of the song. I’d wager that the chorus is more powerful because it’s louder and stronger with more triumphant lyrics. Essentially, the journalists are misusing the studies by 1) pigeonholing a popular song into the studies’ framework, saying “this produces chills, therefore this song must have these qualities” rather than the other way around as the studies meant it, and 2) suggesting that science can predict when a song will be a hit and that it’s possible to follow a scientific formula in order to write something that will be a hit. What the studies do (much like McGill University study I wrote about last year) is figure out what the brain is doing when it reacts emotionally to a song, and what parts of that song generally cause it to react that way. The songwriters knew long before the scientists got there that their song would cause chills. The scientists are on the other end figuring out the why and how.

It’s not just notes. For crying out loud, just read these lyrics:

I hate to turn up out of the blue uninvited
But I couldn’t stay away, I couldn’t fight it
I had hoped you’d see my face and that you’d be reminded
That for me it isn’t over

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

But it’s not just lyrics, either. I hate to beat up on youtubers, but check out this version, and this version, and this version, and tell me that they give you the same emotional reaction as Adele’s performance.

Science is wonderful. In case there was any doubt, I feel very strongly about that. But there’s a lot that goes into art, too, and some of it is complex and mysterious. To respect science is to respect that we don’t have all the answers, and that’s okay.

Now just sit, listen, and let it make you cry knowing that it’s the dopamine and serotonin flowing through your neurons, but that the appoggiaturas are but a fraction of the cause.

The featured image is from the Wall Street Journal.
All other images are by your humble author.

Ashley Hamer

Ashley Hamer (aka Smashley) is a saxophonist and writer living in Chicago, where she performs regularly with the funk band FuzZz and jazz ensemble Big Band Boom. She also does standup comedy, sort of, sometimes. Her tenor saxophone's name is Ladybird.

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  1. Heh, alternate title for this post: “This is Why Science People Don’t Like Journalists”.

  2. Great piece! I read this on WSJ a few days ago (I know right? Wtf was I doing there?) and I’m glad you kicked their door down on it.

  3. Nice piece! I read about this whole thing (I think on NPR’s site?) and thought, “really? her voice flips a little in the middle of a long note, and we all start bawling?”

    Anyway, that whole “please resolve, please resolve, please resolve” feeling is used (as far as I can tell) in the theme to Downton Abbey, particularly in certain parts. The beginning just alternates between two chords, which isn’t very emotionally satisfying, then later it starts moving around a bit more, but never goes exactly where you expect. I think it reflects the melodrama of the show itself – nothing ever quite works out. No one gets exactly what they want, just like your brain doesn’t get the resolution it wants from the music. It also gives it this feeling like the music doesn’t really end, just like there’s no “happily ever after” to the story.

  4. I appreciate you standing up for composers, but please if you are going to write an intesive piece explaining the theory behind musical composition, do not misuse words, check their definition before you try and give them meaning, and understand the harmony of the song more.

    appoggiatura – a classical ornament in music where a dissonant note is approached by a leap, and resolved by step. Generally occurring on a strong beat.

    consonance – This is defined by the chord scale relationship of each chord, not by a notes proximity to each other. Complex chords have small intervals like whole steps built into them and sound quite “consonant.” The generally analogy for this concept is tension and release. A “tense chord” of any kind would be dissonant and it would resolve to a “calm chord” which would be consonant.

    You hit on some really nice points, but it is important to make sure artists sound smart when they explain why people got the answer wrong or they just seem like they are complaining.

    PS LYRICS HAVE NO BEARING ON MUSICAL EXPRESSION! Lyrics are powerful and bring about emotion, but if the music sucks no fancy wonderful words will save the song. They are dealt with separately and on as additions to the composition.

  5. Hi larsenjazz,

    I’d urge you to read the articles I reference in this post. While you’re correct about the definition of appoggiatura when used in a classical context, the scientists and journalists involved in this issue used it to mean a simple dissonance that’s awaiting resolution. It is them that misused the definition, not me.

    As far as consonance is concerned, I have written this post for people not well-versed in music, and have tried to dumb it down as much as possible. You must admit that the closer together two notes are, the more they clash. That is the simplest explanation for how a chord is constructed. The post got far enough into explaining music theory to a lay audience; I’m not going to mention all of the exceptions to this rule. I’m a jazz musician myself; I know the kind of blissful sound a fully altered chord can make.

    I’d argue that lyrics do have bearing on musical expression, and my evidence for that would be in the pages and pages of comments on each of these articles, which I again urge you to read. It’s easy for someone immersed in melody and harmony all the time to say that lyrics have no effect, but to someone who just listens to vocalists (like a large majority of music consumers), lyrics are almost everything.

  6. I enjoyed this article a great deal, and agree with breadbox’s comment wholeheartedly!

    My only beef is with your third figure, in which the crying blue note actually happens to be the octave of the root (of the F7), and therefore not dissonant. I only point this out because it might cause some confusion.

    Otherwise, your premise and argument are terrific (and I thought the colored note graphics were clever and useful!).

  7. Ahhh, you’re right. I must have gotten so caught up in my lack of drawing skills that I forgot how music is done. I appreciate you pointing that out.

  8. Nice take down!

    Sadly, music education is so watered down (if not totally absent) in the US that the Mickey Mouse version of musical understanding can actually make it to a major publication. The basic idea is more or less true, but their application of it is totally misguided. There is a lot more going on in a simple pop tune than can really be explained in a single article (or by a single note). I think music is especially prone to this because it is so hard to understand without some experience actually making music. The basic ‘material’ of music has to be experienced – it isn’t in a concrete form that can be easily examined. If this WSJ article were about visual art, it would be like trying to explain a Picasso by simply saying “it’s his use of line.”

    I think that may be one of the big benefits of music study – it requires you to interact with, understand, and manipulate something totally abstract and ephemeral. Sadly, articles like this totally oversimplify a fascinating and rich subject into a simple dictum.

    As per the comments on lyrics, the interaction of music and words is a profoundly rich topic. Lyrics aren’t simply ‘added on’ later, but most composers (at least in the ‘classical’ tradition, and especially artsong composers) work hard to properly craft their music in order to heighten and illuminate the meaning of the words through their music as well as to let the natural diction and flow of the lyrics come through as much as possible. It is true that some composers of popular music write their lyrics to match the music they’ve already written (Paul McCartney’s “Yesterday” started out as “Scrambled Eggs” for one famous example), but even then they are simply working ‘backwards’ and crafting lyrics that fit with a particular musical structure.

  9. Smashley

    I know it does not mean much on a face less message board, but I too am a jazz saxophonists and have severeral graduate degrees in music. No matter what the original article says we need to defend our art by making people aware of their misunderstand of what we do. Things like the miss use of a word or an incorrect usage of a term makes readers of ours and their works flawed, and that means that “Lay” person will go out with incorrect information. It is fine to simplify for their sake, but we cannot use terms wrong or that kills the power of our argument. Since the correct definition of a word is a fact that people can correct.

    As far as lyrics go, as I always tell my students, “If you want to talk about the meaning of the lyrics, head on off to English class. This is music. How does it sound.”

  10. VoxMachina – Very well said.

    Larsenjazz – Let’s not have a graduate-degree-measuring contest, dude.

    “This urge is what the studies in question are talking about, for which they use the overwrought term appoggiatura. This term is usually used to denote a quick dissonance, not one that sits defiant atop a harmony for a good period of time the way the scientists mean, but I get their drift.”

    What about this is incorrect? I don’t mention that it’s supposed to use a leap. That was intentional. It IS a quick dissonance (an ornament). The studies in question analyze the neurotransmitters that are released when a person listens to music during tension and resolution, respectively, which has very little to do with ornaments. I took writerly license and chose the mistakes I wanted to address. I am not making the “‘Lay’ person go out with incorrect information,” I am showing them the aspects I am addressing. I am formulating an argument. A clear argument need not be muddled with superfluous information — you pose the facts you plan to challenge, and then you challenge them.

  11. Fantastic piece, thanks Smashley.

    I’ll point out that there’s evidence that the dissonant notes used in that melody were in fact deliberately used within a tradition that understands that use. You omitted the bar lines to simplify things but the rhythmic structure is still evident from the way you notated it. No surprise there given your education.

    Almost every dissonant melody note falls on an unaccented beat or subdivision. This is what one would expect from a composer who understands the rules of the western tradition of tonal music.

    It’s important to note that these rules are not top down rules but are descriptive rules that have become, er, *rule* rules over time. They were formulated over time as a distillation of what composers were doing and they are not static. In fact music *theory* is more closely akin to scientific *theory* in it’s descriptive nature. As apposed to prescriptive rules such as those of chess for instance.

    The pop press articles on this are not only doing a disservice to the composers of the piece but to all work done by composers and theorists that have struggled to understand what works in our tradition over the last 5 or 6 hundred years.

    Please not that I use “our tradition” and other phrases to distinguish the kind of harmony we’re talking about here and all the other musical traditions around the world. The notions of consonance and dissonance are heavily influenced by the culture that the hearer was raised in.

    To wit: The Bulgarian Women’s choir. That first piece is chockers with what we would call dissonance that needs resolving.

  12. Exactly, coelecanth. In thinking about this, I kept going back the idea of gourmet cooking (maybe if Anne drops by this thread she can enlighten us on her take). Putting aside for a second the gross disservice he gives to science a lot of the time, Jonah Lehrer’s book Proust Was a Neuroscientist includes a chapter about how chef Auguste Escoffier was one of the first people to use the pan scrapings from a recently cooked hunk of meat to season gravies, broths, etc. He explains that the reason this makes things taste so good is that the chemical reaction that takes place in the pan does something to the amino acids (it’s been a while since I read it, I might be totally wrong on this) which makes our brains interpret it as something highly nourishing, and therefore highly delicious.

    The chef obviously didn’t know about this chemical reaction taking place, he only knew the reaction he and other diners got when they tasted the final product. It’s the same with music. Over literally centuries of practice, both chefs and composers have learned what evokes certain reactions in their subjects’ brains.

    I didn’t think about it being akin to a science, but I suppose you’re onto something. I was thinking that celebrating the long tradition of music would be like celebrating the long tradition of Eastern Medicine — something incredibly unscientific, but one that gets it right every so often. But the difference is that musicians aren’t sitting and honoring one type of music from centuries ago; they’re experimenting and pushing the boundaries of what we consider “right” until *that* begins to sound “right”. If it were like Eastern Medicine, we’d still humming chants and forbidding the use of tritones. Cool.

  13. Yah, great points especially about pushing the boundaries. And nevermind forbidding diabolus in musica, we’d not even have harmonic thirds because they too were once considered dissonant. Not to mention the equal temperament tuning system which allows instruments to shift keys and so on and so on.

    I should clarify that scientific theory and music theory only correspond so far before the similarities break down. Music theory doesn’t have the formal prediction and testing steps leading to possible falsification that science does. In that it’s much more like eastern medicine as you rightly point out. Though it could be said that submitting works for public consumption are those steps with falsification coming from a lack of consumer interest.

    Also of note is that the results of music, the emotional responses invoked, are so heavily subjective. You could test til the cows come home and you’re only going to be able to say that X% of any given audience is going to respond in Y way to Z musical technique at this time in this culture.

    The cultural variables inherent in the emotional response to music, variables that not only change between extant cultures but also change in one culture through time make any kind of testing strictly limited in it’s usefulness.

    Mind you, I bet someone is doing this sort of research to see if there is any fundamental musical concepts and techniques that work cross culturally. Things that are inherent to the architecture of our ears and brains. (And now I’m going to have to find time to search Google Scholar for this stuff, sigh….)

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