This week, Adele won a number of Grammys, including best pop solo performance for her song "Someone Like You." Inspired by this Wall Street Journal article on how music conveys emotion, we talked to McGill professor Dan Levitin about what makes music, and in particular Adele's "Someone Like You", so emotionally powerful.
Last Sunday, Adele's song, Someone Like You, won the Grammy for Best Pop Solo Performance, a song notorious for evoking intense emotion, notorious enough to earn this mocking tribute last year from "Saturday Night Live."
KRISTEN CARROLL WIIG:
Ladies, I'm no dummy. You both needed a good cry so you were listening to Adele's Someone Like You.
NASIM PEDRAD AS KAREN:
Do you do it too?
Everyone with a heart and an iTunes account does.
So I know it, I get it, and I want in.
What is it about this song that arouses so much emotion? Daniel Levitin, a professor at McGill University and author of This is Your Brain On Music and The World in Six Songs says that at least some of this overwhelming response can be explained by science.
We've been using a number of different ways in my laboratory. One is we have people move these volume knobs in response to music in real time, and they tell us when they're feeling thrills and chills, when they're bored. And this creates 100 data points per second, and we can figure out where the moments in the music are.
Give me an example.
Well, one thing we've been using is the Moonlight Sonata -
[MOONLIGHT SONATA ON PIANO]
— uh, by Beethoven.
[MOONLIGHT SONATA CONTINUES]
It begins, interestingly, in a similar way to Adele's song, with an arpeggiated chord. That's a broken chord. Instead of being played all at once, the notes are played one at a time. At about the point when the right hand starts playing the melody, four measures into the piece, there's this burst of feeling.
[MOONLIGHT SONATA ON PIANO]
In general, what's going on is that what we want as listeners is for music to surprise us, but not too much. If the music was completely surprising, we'd be disoriented. On the other extreme, if the music was completely predictable, we'd grow bored of it and it would seem banal. And what the composer has to do is find that balance and get it just right, the Goldilocks zone.
[LAUGHS] You cite Joni Mitchell as a master of the - just right amount of surprise.
I think she is, and she uses something that's called Appoggiatura. She hits a note that's out of the key or a bit off, and then glides into the right note.
[JONI MITCHELL SINGING TROUBLED CHILD]
And that creates a certain amount of tension in the listener, and then Joni'll slide in with a kind of [SINGS] and hit just the right note.
[JONI MITCHELL SINGING]
And the other way in which a great song —it's having a certain amount of repetition and then violating that repetition in interesting ways.
[STEVIE WONDER SINGING SUPERSTITION]
Stevie Wonder's Superstition, the high hat that starts the tune, it's constantly changing. And so, instead of going [MAKES DRUMMING SOUND] which any other drummer would do, Stevie, who's a fabulous drummer, goes [PERCUSSIVE SOUND]. That's an example of something that could have been simple that's made interesting by its growing complexity.
So Adele seems to use all of these qualities in that song, Someone Like You.
The beginning is so simple. It's an arpeggio, broken chords. We've heard this a thousand times before, from Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata, Meat Loaf, Two Out of Three Ain't Bad, and it almost seems like nothing special could possibly happen.
[ADELE SINGING SOMEONE LIKE YOU]
And then - she couldn't have a simpler melody. It's four notes: One, two, three, four, one, two, three, four.
I heard that you're settled down
That you found a girl —
That is the first verse.
- and you're married now.
When she gets to the piece of music that comes between the verse and the chorus, suddenly there's this frantic, frenetic tempo, and you realize from the words — I hate to turn up out of the blue uninvited, but I couldn't say stay away, I couldn't fight it - she's stalking him! And the music has this obsessive quality to it, with all those [SNAPS FINGERS] verbal syllables coming in.
And then before you know it, you're in the chorus. Her voice jumps up an octave, so much higher than she'd been singing before; you couldn't have predicted she would there.
I remember you said, "Sometimes it lasts in love but sometimes it hurts instead."
And in that very first line of the chorus, she hits that appoggiatura, where she slides into the word "you" and you kind of feel like the train's gone off the rails when she hits that wrong note.
And then she saves it again.
She does something that you call a vocal fry.
This is a term used by linguists who refer to a tendency — I hate to say this, but this is something that Kim Kardashian does, of all people.
When she talks, she uses a kind of scrappy lower part of her register, and she kinda talks like that.
[ADELE SINGING/UP AND UNDER]
And when a singer does that, as Adele does, it communicates emotion. It sounds like their voice is at the breaking point. She does it in the first verse.
I heard that your dreams came true.
It isn't just about the song. It's also about the performance.
There can be songs that a great singer can save and there can be great songs that a bad singer can't hurt.
[LAUGHS] So we've gone over how you can affect people compositionally and how you can affect people with your performance. But another thing that you've noted is that there are certain techniques that used to work and don't work anymore?
If we listen to a Bill Evans record today—
[BILL EVANS PLAYING PIANO/UP & UNDER]
— 150 years ago that would have been considered very, very dissonant. And many of us find it very soothing. Our ears have evolved.
People rioted at Beethoven.
They did and they stormed out of one of his symphonies; they weren't ready for it.
So do you anticipate that there'll be a time when Adele's song ceases to move us?
I wouldn't take that bet.
There's enough nuance and attention to detail and enough power intrinsic to her performance of the song and the song itself, I wouldn't be surprised if it lasted a long time.
Thank you so much.
Oh, thank you for having me.
Daniel Levitin is a professor at McGill University, and he's also author of This is Your Brain On Music and The World in Six Songs.
[BILL EVANS/PIANO MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Jamie York, Alex Goldman, PJ Vogt, Sarah Abdurrahman and Chris Neary, with more help from Liyna Anwar and Hannah Sheehan, and edited by me. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineer this week was Andrew Dunne.
Katya Rogers is our senior producer. Ellen Horne is WNYC's senior director of National Programs. Bassist composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. You can listen to the program and find transcripts at onthemedia.org. You can find us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
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On the Media is produced by WNYC and distributed by NPR. Bob Garfield will be back next week. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
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