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Why Does Some Music Make You Cry?

  • Jim Daly Jim Daly is president and chief executive officer of Focus on the Family, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping families thrive.
  • 2012 Mar 09

Posted by Jim_Daly Mar 7, 2012




There are few people who know less about music than me, but a recent article in the Wall Street Journal about music and emotion grabbed my attention.

The piece attempted to answer an interesting question:

Why is some music more likely to make people cry?

Is it a matter of nostalgia, a tune tied to a specific time or event in our lives? Or is it the strength, power and message within the song’s lyrics?

Not according to some experts. Writes the Wall Street Journal’sMichaeleen Doucleff:

"Twenty years ago, the British psychologist John Sloboda conducted a simple experiment. He asked music lovers to identify passages of songs that reliably set off a physical reaction, such as tears or goose bumps. Participants identified 20 tear-triggering passages, and when Dr. Sloboda analyzed their properties, a trend emerged: 18 contained a musical device called an 'appoggiatura.'"

He continued:

An appoggiatura is a type of ornamental note that clashes with the melody just enough to create a dissonant sound. "This generates tension in the listener," said Martin Guhn, a psychologist at the University of British Columbia who co-wrote a 2007 study on the subject. "When the notes return to the anticipated melody, the tension resolves, and it feels good."

Chills often descend on listeners at these moments of resolution. When several appoggiaturas occur next to each other in a melody, it generates a cycle of tension and release. This provokes an even stronger reaction, and that is when the tears start to flow.

The article’s author suggested that a current pop hit, “Someone Like You”, by the singer Adele, is filled with notes that resemble appoggiaturas. Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 was also identified as piece likely to elicit tears.

The anatomy of the human brain is incredibly complicated and fascinating, isn’t it? Indeed, we are fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139:14).

Beyond pure interest, though, how is this relevant to moms and dads?

Good question.

If you have a teenager who is obsessed with listening to music, you would want to know there’s a chance the reason they’re so enamored is because they’re actually having a chemical reaction within their brains to those tunes on their iPods.

No kidding.

The article continued:

Last year, Robert Zatorre and his team of neuroscientists at McGill University reported that emotionally intense music releases dopamine in the pleasure and reward centers of the brain, similar to the effects of food, sex and drugs. This makes us feel good and motivates us to repeat the behavior.

Measuring listeners' responses, Dr. Zatorre's team found that the number of goose bumps observed correlated with the amount of dopamine released, even when the music was extremely sad. The results suggest that the more emotions a song provokes—whether depressing or uplifting—the more we crave the song.

When I was a kid, people used to suggest that rock and roll and drugs went together. They were often right. However, little did we know at the time that the reason some of the music was so appealing to so many was because it was releasing the powerful chemical dopamine in their brains.

So, what’s a parent to do? Analyze chords and identify the number of appoggiaturas in any given song? I don’t think so.

How you manage your child’s consumption of music is up to you, of course, but I hope you’ll keep our excellent Plugged In website in mind. When it comes to evaluating the specific artists and the lyrics behind the music, nobody does it better than our team. Click hereto access full and complete reviews of some of the most popular songs out today.

What music makes you cry - and why?

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