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.
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.