Why “Someone Like You” Makes Us Cry: A Scientific Analysis

Slate's Culture Blog
Feb. 13 2012 3:49 PM

Did You See This? Why “Someone Like You” Makes You Cry

138854497
Adele performs at the 54th Grammy Awards last night.

Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Last night, Adele won all six Grammys she was nominated for—including a win for what has become her iconic song, “Someone Like You,” which took home an award for best pop vocal performance. Last week, the Boston Globe suggested it deserved another award, “tearjerker of the year,” and enlisted some music professors to explain why it makes us cry.

One said that it’s heartbreaking because Adele insists, in the lyrics, that she’ll move on, but the music “circles around the same notes, never resolving, never finding peace.” Another said it has to do with layering “simple blues-folk melodies over a classical-style piano accompaniment.”

Advertisement

All of this was clearly too soft an explanation for the Wall Street Journal, which ran a similar piece over the weekend, drawing on the assistance not of music professors, but of neuroscientists and psychologists. One of these experts studied “the formula for a tearjerker” a few years ago, by picking a few musical excerpts “that reliably produce the chills,” playing those songs for people, and then measuring the heart rate, sweating, and goose bumps of his subjects as they listened. He and his team found that all such musical passages started soft and then became louder; featured the “abrupt entrance of a new ‘voice,’ either a new instrument or harmony”; typically “involved an expansion of the frequencies played”; and, finally, “contained unexpected deviations in the melody or the harmony.”

According to the piece, “Someone Like You” is “a textbook example.” You can read their breakdown, complete with audio clips, here. (Via The Awl.) You can listen to “Someone Like You” in its entirety below.

David Haglund is a senior editor at Slate. He runs Brow Beat, Slate's culture blog.

TODAY IN SLATE

History

Slate Plus Early Read: The Self-Made Man

The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada. Now, Journalists Can’t Even Say Her Name.

Mitt Romney May Be Weighing a 2016 Run. That Would Be a Big Mistake.

Amazing Photos From Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution

Transparent Is the Fall’s Only Great New Show

The XX Factor

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada

Now, journalists can't even say her name.

Doublex

Lena Dunham, the Book

More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.

What a Juicy New Book About Diane Sawyer and Katie Couric Fails to Tell Us About the TV News Business

Does Your Child Have Sluggish Cognitive Tempo? Or Is That Just a Disorder Made Up to Scare You?

  News & Politics
Damned Spot
Sept. 30 2014 9:00 AM Now Stare. Don’t Stop. The perfect political wife’s loving gaze in campaign ads.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 29 2014 7:01 PM We May Never Know If Larry Ellison Flew a Fighter Jet Under the Golden Gate Bridge
  Life
Dear Prudence
Sept. 30 2014 6:00 AM Drive-By Bounty Prudie advises a woman whose boyfriend demands she flash truckers on the highway.
  Double X
Doublex
Sept. 29 2014 11:43 PM Lena Dunham, the Book More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.
  Slate Plus
Slate Fare
Sept. 29 2014 8:45 AM Slate Isn’t Too Liberal, but … What readers said about the magazine’s bias and balance.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 29 2014 9:06 PM Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice Looks Like a Comic Masterpiece
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 30 2014 7:36 AM Almost Humane What sci-fi can teach us about our treatment of prisoners of war.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 30 2014 7:30 AM What Lurks Beneath The Methane Lakes of Titan?
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 28 2014 8:30 PM NFL Players Die Young. Or Maybe They Live Long Lives. Why it’s so hard to pin down the effects of football on players’ lives.