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This WSJ piece about the “science” (such as it is) behind Adele’s “Someone Like You” has been floating around. The premise is interesting, of course: Why do certain songs make us cry? This is fine, as far as it goes, but I find the article to be deeply unsatisfying:

“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.

When the chorus enters, Adele’s voice jumps up an octave, and she belts out notes with increasing volume. The harmony shifts, and the lyrics become more dramatic: “Sometimes it lasts in love, but sometimes it hurts instead.”

OK, let’s back this up. First of all, the article purports to identify certain traits that make a song particularly weep-worthy, or rather, universally weep-worthy. Yet, the emotional framework that prompts particular reactions has more roots than mere sonic stimuli. That is to say, context matters. Cross-cultural studies reveal differences in the kinds of stimuli that provoke crying and different social functions that it serves. Any attempt to build the “perfect crying pop song” is probably misguided, or at the very least, restricted by the local culture. Consider the findings of this study about the cathartic nature of crying across cultures:

Several contextual features of crying episodes were indeed predictive of crying-related catharsis. Specifically, the receipt of social support, experiencing a resolution to the event that caused the crying episode, and achieving a new understanding of the event were positively related to catharsis. Crying episodes that featured the suppression of crying or the experiencing of shame from crying were less likely to be cathartic. The data suggest that contextual factors may play an important role in shaping crying-related catharsis.

Although it’s interesting, of course, that appoggiaturas are present in many songs that people identify as causing them to cry, one wonder what made people cry prior to the invention of the appoggiatura, or to pianos, or to the modern musical instrument generally. I think the context matters much more than the piece of music itself (for example, in one study (JSTOR PDF registration needed for full article), women consistently experienced more chills when listening to music than men.). There seems to be more at play here than some inherent connection between appoggiaturas and crying; maybe it’s that we have ascribed certain emotional cues to certain types of music as a society, rather than anything essential to the construction/arrangement of the sounds themselves. I hypothesize that playing “Someone Like You” for a Maori tribesman 400 years ago would have led to a very different reaction.

That said, let’s assume that there is a manipulative way in which Adele’s “Someone Like You” or Schumann’s “Traumerei” have been constructed to make us cry. Let’s say that they are cynical ploys to engage our waterworks, in the same way that certain pop song earworms are designed to be stuck in your head until you die. Does that actually affect your enjoyment of the song? I know that there are dopamine releases when I eat fatty foods that make me feel good, but so what? I can still feel great when I eat it! I know that my favorite movies include manipulative tools to make me feel a certain way. That doesn’t stop me from feeling that way? Perhaps the sign of a work of art that has achieved greatness is its ability to move us even as we know we are being manipulated.

Or, as a friend of mine said, maybe “it makes us cry because it’s BEAUTIFUL.” I think I’m okay with that.

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The key changes when the guys start singing are really striking. This genre of video fascinates me, as it really highlights the combination of group participation and response to music, mass democracy, voyeurism, and exhibitionism that the Internet inhabits. That is to say, this is a piece of art that is entirely new and could not have ever existed previous to this moment in history.

People can complain about whether or not mashup is worthwhile, but it is at least novel.

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