f you haven't shed a tear to Adele's bone-chilling ballad "Someone Like You," you might want to check your pulse. The chart-topping tune is so "famously sob-inducing" that it was even the focal point of a Saturday Night Live comedy sketch. But there's actually a method to the sadness, says Michaeleen Doucleff at The Wall Street Journal. The British songstress' "perfect tear-jerker" hits on "a formula for commercial success" that psychologists have been studying for 20 years. The Grammy-award winner's smoky voice and heartfelt lyrics are just part of an equation that, according to a 2007 study co-written by psychologist Martin Guhn, can be traced in the DNA of Samuel Barber's "Adagio for Strings" and Felix Mendelssohn's "Trio for Piano" — pieces of music that elicit reactions including an increased heart rate, sweating, and yes, even goose bumps. "What explains the magic of Adele's song?" asks Doucleff. Here, an excerpt:
Chill-provoking passages, [researchers] found, shared at least four features. They began softly and then suddenly became loud. They included an abrupt entrance of a new "voice," either a new instrument or harmony. And they often involved an expansion of the frequencies played. In one passage from Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 23 (K. 488), for instance, the violins jump up one octave to echo the melody. Finally, all the passages contained unexpected deviations in the melody or the harmony. Music is most likely to tingle the spine, in short, when it includes surprises in volume, timbre, and harmonic pattern.
"Someone Like You" is a textbook example. "The song begins with a soft, repetitive pattern," said Dr. Guhn, while Adele keeps the notes within a narrow frequency range. The lyrics are wistful but restrained: "I heard that you're settled down, that you found a girl and you're married now." This all sets up a sentimental and melancholy mood.
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- 31 TV shows to watch in 2014
- Attack of the invasive species
- Why atheism doesn't have the upper hand over religion
- He said he was leaving. She ignored him.
- 14 wonderful words with no English equivalent
- Why Easter is so important to Christians
- Why would a young person today be religious?
- What would a U.S.-Russia war look like?
- The world's dumbest idea: Taxing solar energy
- Which states get screwed worst by the Electoral College?
Subscribe to the Week