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

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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.”

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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.

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