The Language of Tears

Posted by Alberta Barnes on Mar 7, 2012 6:33:00 PM

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It is such a secret place, the land of tears.- Antoine de Saint-Exupery

By now many of you have probably read Michaeleen Doucleff’s Wall Street Journal article entitled “Anatomy of a Tear Jerker.” The author explains why Adele’s hit, “Someone Like You,” provokes tears. For Doucleff, the song's lachrymal force comes down to the singer's use of “appoggiaturas” and an octave leap at the chorus. The use of these devices, Doucleff asserts, is a formula for commercial success: unleash the tears and chills with small surprises, a smoky voice and soulful lyrics, and then sit back and let the dopamine keep us coming back for more. Doucleff thereby portrays music as a materialistic formula which manipulates our emotions. As a musician, I cannot help but rebut this assertion on both intellectual and emotional levels. 

As appealing as her topic may be, Doucleff’s article is nonetheless filled with misconceptions. The most glaringly obvious of these is the assertion that "appoggiaturas" have been shown to evoke tears. The problem here is that the term, usually given to a very specific type of Baroque ornamentation, is incorrectly defined. Doucleff defines an “appoggiatura” as “a type of ornamental note that clashes with the melody just enough to create a dissonant sound.” Issac Schankler, in his particularly good response to Doucleff’s article, points out that this definition is actually completely inaccurate in the given context. The “appoggiaturas” that Doucleff is really referring to are in fact non-harmonic tones, which, she fails to observe, are actually a fundamental element of melody in Western music.

Most simply, Western music is a journey from tension to resolution. From simple harmonic progressions (think: I – IV – V – vi – IV – V – I) to large-scale forms (like Sonata or Rondo form, for example), music moves from stasis to tension and back again to resolution. This journey from tension to resolution is a major factor in the emotive power of Western music. The finale of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, for example, is undeniably triumphant. Why? It has a tremendously long coda where the final harmonic resolution is expanded and expounded. Of course, there are a large range of other expressive factors in Western music (like dynamics, instrumentation, timbre, and tempo, to name an obvious few), but harmonic tension and resolution are probably the most foundational and powerful. 

In my opinion, this continual movement between tension and resolution is also a profoundly human element of Western musical expression. Music simply reflects the underlying reality of our lives: submerged in a world of turmoil, toil, and tears, we continually seek rest -- we are always seeking resolution and peace in both the small events of our lives as well as in the monumental. This is one reason why we can relate to music, this is why it elicits emotional responses from us, and this is why music is an unquantifiable art that is bound by beauty to express some fundamental truths about what it means to be human.

I take it personally when Doucleff reduces musical expression to “appoggiaturas,” dopamine reactions, and commercial success. Musical and psychological misconceptions aside, I still eschew the underlying assumption that lies beneath Doucleff's article. Anything that elicits tears from anyone -- whether it is music, a piece of art, or an act of kindness -- is invaluable and unquantifiable. More importantly, even if we can identify the neurological processes behind these tears, such explanations will never be able to translate the secret words that music whispers to each individual soul.

Topics: Beethoven, Classical Music, Music Theory

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