Following up on my last post about sad music, here’s a great article from the Wall Street Journal about some of the musical secrets behind Adele’s Grammy-winning smash hit “Someone Like You.” Emotionally intense music, whether happy or sad, releases massive amounts of dopamine in the pleasure centers of our brains, acting like a drug and making us yearn for another dose. Intensely sad music behaves just like happy music in this sense—it causes physiological reactions in our brain that keep us coming back for more.
The article also details a couple of musical tricks that help to intensify the emotion, including the humble appoggiatura. In a study 20 years ago, the psychologist John Sloboda found this seemingly minor accent present in 18 out of 20 (unnamed) tear-jerkers. As the song’s co-writer Dan Wilson told Minnesota Public Radio, neither he nor Adele knew what an appoggiatura was when they were working on “Someone Like You.” They used it instinctively. As Wilson said, “Hey, if I had a scientific method for making a heartbreaking hit, I would do it every day… But it’s not so easy.”
Here’s an amusing, if long, video of British comedian Bill Bailey discussing the instruments of the orchestra. Along the way he talks about 70’s cop show music and plays the theremin and the alpine bells. It’s from 2008, so some of you may have already seen it, but it’s a funny and interesting watch if you’ve got an hour to kill. The orchestra is none other than the BBC Concert Orchestra, and the conductor is the multi-talented (and Oscar-winning) Anne Dudley.
Music is an integral part of movies. As proof, the list of successful films without scores is quite short: Annie Hall, Catch 22, Network, The Birds, Dog Day Afternoon, and just a few others. Why? What is it about music that makes it so common in films?
Music provides several elements in a film that are difficult or impossible to achieve in other ways, and it is of tremendous importance in reinforcing other aspects and strengthening their impact. Here’s just a partial list of what music can add:
One of the most common uses of film music is to heighten or enhance the emotion of the onscreen action. Ideally, the actors will deliver much of the emotional impact of a scene, but the score can help the viewers connect more directly with the characters and their feelings.
Here’s an interesting listen: Why Do We Love Sad Songs? was the topic on the radio show To the Best of Our Knowledge last Sunday. Up for discussion: Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, the science behind the minor 3rd, a brief history of country music, and the melancholic sound of Bach’s Cello Suites.
It’s an interesting subject—sad music—especially for a music-psychology geek like myself. What is it about a particular piece of music that makes us feel down? Why is the minor 3rd interval so tied to sad music? And why do we crave depressing music? My friends would probably all describe me as a generally happy person, and yet I love a great sad song. Why?
There’s a good deal of compelling content here, of interest to musicians and non-musicians alike. For example, the minor 3rd is common in sad music, but it’s equally common in speech, especially when we’re feeling gloomy. And the discussion of Adagio for Strings is fascinating, describing the piece’s incredible popularity, and its ability to sustain a single, melancholy emotion for a full eight minutes.