Last night, Adele took home several Grammy awards, including Record of the Year for her soulful “Rolling in the Deep.” Adele’s voice is spectacular, and her hits really seem to have what it takes to move people. While “Rolling in the Deep” makes me want to shout and dance, her wistful ballad “Someone Like You” makes me (and millions of others) feel like crying. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal discusses why this song has that kind of effect.
It comes down to the appogiattura – a musical device in the form of an extra ornamental note that “clashes with the melody just enough to create a dissonant sound.” This dissonance is then resolved, sending us on a mini roller coaster whenever our ears come across this little trick or surprise. All perceptual “surprises” are coded in the brain with a burst of dopamine (note: in a past entry, I wrote about how dopamine represents “prediction error”, or when something is better than expected, such as getting a reward when you expected nothing). This dopaminergic signal causes us to experience an emotional reaction, and to want to experience the stimulus again. Many drugs work by causing unnatural bursts of dopamine, which is how people get addicted; their brains are programmed to want it again and again. So, when you feel that emotional reaction to a song – goosebumps, chills, your tearducts filling up – you want to feel it again. And you listen to that song repeatedly.
Most musicians seek to make this kind of music – the poignant pieces that keep you coming back for more. But most don’t, or can’t, articulate the devices that they use. As music and musical research advances, however, producers and artists are purposefully playing with our brains’ auditory and pleasure centers. It seems cheap, I know…but it’s effective. And after all, isn’t that what matters in the end? Or is there something about knowing exactly why you’re getting goosebumps that takes away from the musical experience?