Ever wondered why certain pieces of music or songs make you all teary even though you cannot entirely relate to the subject? You probably think it is because you are able to empathize with the author since you have had some similar experience, or that your emotional nature is the reason why great musical notes move you. See the performance of Susan Boyle below to see what I mean.
Even after seven years this Susan Boyle performance doesn’t fail to give me goose bumps and brings tears to my eyes. It is such a great, emotional piece of music. Whether it is the amazing lyrics, the powerful voice, or the emotional music, or everything combined, it never seizes to evoke a nostalgic feeling–even to the most cynical of us.
The Science of Appoggiatura
Science has different answers. The key is actually in the little musical device called appoggiatura. In essence, appoggiatura is a musical ornament where dissonance is created only to quickly resolve to consonance. According to Martin Guhn, a psychologist at the University of British Columbia: “This generates tension in the listener. When the notes return to the anticipated melody, the tension resolves, and it feels good.”
What Does Appoggiatura have to do with Emotions?
Guhn co-wrote a 2007 study on the subject of effects appoggiatura has on human emotions, yet this wasn’t the first research of the sort. Over twenty years ago, British psychologist John Sloboda made similar findings. It showed that 18 out of 20 song passages that evoked deep emotions among listeners, contained appoggiaturas. These ornaments, when repeated will provoke a chemical reaction in our brains that ultimately leads to tears. “The music taps into this very primitive system that we have which identifies emotion on the basis of a violation of expectancy,” Dr. Sloboda says. “It’s like a little upset which then gets resolved or made better in the chord that follows.” The tension release cycle ultimately makes us feel good due to the release of dopamine into the pleasure centers of our brain, which makes us addicted, as a 2013 study finds. That’s why you get that happy sad feeling while listening to emotionally charged songs, no matter what the nature of emotions is. This may come as a shock to all of you who thought you were just too emotional.
Adele’s Song: Someone Like You
The same could be said to Adele’s 2012 award winning ballad Someone Like You. Most of us would attribute the enormous success of the song to Adele’s powerful voice, beautiful music, and the fact that so many people can relate to a story about past love and regrets. Those elements most certainly made it one of the most moving ballads of the decade. But, appoggiaturas also may have something to do with it. Adele’s ballad abounds with these undeniably. In fact, it can be most easily noted every time “that” comes along, such as in “that you found a girl” and in “that your dreams came true”. Here, “that your” is a chord, where “that” is dissonant to the chord and quickly resolves. That is the moment when the tension creates.
According to Sloboda: “Our brains are wired to pick up the music that we expect. And generally music is consonant rather than dissonant, so we expect a nice chord. So when that chord is not quite what we expect, it gives you a little bit of an emotional frisson, because it’s strange and unexpected.” The release that follows makes us feel happy after a moment of tension, which “tricks” our brain into feeling pleasure. So, to say that listening to sad songs provides guilty pleasure isn’t that far from the truth.
Science Behind Musical Creativity?
It would be quite unfair to put something as creative and emotional as writing and performing honest music, to such formulaic and technical terms as appoggiaturas. When writing an emotional song about personal past hurt, artists certainly don’t indulge in counting the appoggiaturas. Yet, the device goes beyond our ability to empathize with the lines as it makes us addicted to the emotion the overall performance evokes.
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