We have all, through exhaustive personal research, confirmed that listening to Adele's "Someone Like You" is a surefire way to bring on a good cry, but now we have the scientific explanation for why exactly it can get us sobbing in seconds. It turns out there are a few different factors that make it so potent.
First, according to research by psychologist John Sloboda, a musical device known as an appoggiatura—using a note that creates a slightly dissonant sound with the melody—is especially effective at setting off tears in listeners. Martin Guhn, another psychologist, explains why it works: "This generates tension in the listener. When the notes return to the anticipated melody, the tension resolves, and it feels good." When you put a few appoggiaturas in a row, you get a series of ups and downs, which in turn gets your brain pumped up enough to cry. It should come as no surprise, then, that "Someone Like You," has a bunch of notes which act similarly to appoggiaturas. Plus, Dr. Guhn explains, Adele modulates her voice in a way that creates even more cycles of tension and release. Damn, girl, you know just how to hit us where it hurts.
But that's not the only weapon in Adele's arsenal. Dr. Guhn and his colleague Marcel Zentner have found in their research that chill-provoking music typically includes, "surprises in volume, timbre and harmonic pattern." Adele's monster tearjerker has all of those things in spades. The unexpected patterns in the music cause our sympathetic nervous system to fire up, and depending on the context, we either read this as a happy or sad provocation. Since Adele's song is obviously about a sad, wistful topic, our brains go dark and the waterworks begin.
So if it makes us so sad, why do we love the bloody song so much? Well, probably for the same reason we love a good cry: it gives us a release. Neuroscientist Robert Zatorre found that listening to emotionally intense songs can cause one's brain to release dopamine in its pleasure centers. You know what else causes that? Sex, good food, and drugs—starting to see a pattern here? Dr. Zatorre found, according to the Wall Street Journal, that when listening to intense songs,
[T]he number of goose bumps observed correlated with the amount of dopamine released, even when the music was extremely sad. The results suggest that the more emotions a song provokes—whether depressing or uplifting—the more we crave the song.
And there you have it. Adele is a drug that you are powerless to resist. That is why, as Saturday Night Live so correctly pointed out, she pairs so well with bad days and ice cream.
Anatomy of a Tear-Jerker [Wall Street Journal]