Dan Wilson on the science of the tearful ballad

Why do some songs go straight to our gut and occasionally even make us cry?

According to the British psychologist John Sloboda, the emotional trigger can be traced to a musical device called an "appoggiatura" - a type of ornamental note that creates a dissonant sound.

A recent Wall Street Journal article used Sloboda's theory to deconstruct Adele's Grammy-winning song "Someone Like You."


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Dan Wilson

That led the folks at NPR's All Things Considered to call up Twin Cities' songwriter Dan Wilson, who co-wrote the song, to find out just how intentional his use of the "appoggiatura" was. Here's his response:

I first heard of the term 'appoggiatura' in the Wall Street Journal article. It talked about how Adele and I had used this secret trick by putting appoggiaturas in, but I didn't know what that was.

A good song allows us, the listeners, to walk through the songwriter or composer's thoughts and emotions as they wrote the song. That's why when you listen to The Replacements, you get this kind of giddy drunk feeling, probably because they were drunk when they recorded and wrote their song.

With Adele, we wrote this song that was about a desperately heartbreaking end of a relationship, and she was really, really feeling it at the time, and we were imaginatively creating. That walked her back through that experience. And when you and l listen to that song, we walk through her shoes through that heartbreaking experience -- but it's in our imagination. And so instead of being devastating, we're like children play-acting. We get to have an imaginative experience.

Hey, if I had a scientific method for making a heartbreaking hit, I would do it every day...But it's not so easy.