What if we could perfect the formula for tear-jerking, goosebump-inducing songs? That question has obsessed me ever since I read a Wall Street Journal article (echoed by NPR and the Huffington Post) about Adele’s Grammy-minted ballad “Someone Like You.” Granted, it's a breakup song set to foreign-film piano, but it’s Adele’s “unexpected deviations” from the melody—effects known to music nerds as “appoggiatura”—that get the tears flowing.
I say skip Adele if you want to experience appoggiatura. Instead, watch this clip of Boyz II Men singing the Star Spangled Banner. They actually add a Satanic flat-fifth to that iconic “Brave” note, and the beauty lies in that brief cascading tension. If your eyes aren’t stinging by the end, we will probably never be friends (and even if we are, I refuse to watch The Miracle Worker with you).
I want to add a class of appoggiatura that WSJ left out, one that you probably won’t ever hear at the Grammys: screaming. Dropped skillfully into a pop song, it’s the most reliable throat-lumper I know.
I had to stop listening to Björk’s Selmasongs—not because Dancer in the Dark is the most depressing movie ever, but because of the ecstatic break in Björk’s voice at 4:14 of “Cvalda.” Same with the Flaming Lips’ “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots Part 2”: the mostly instrumental song ends with a series of shrill bleats that pause, then return as a sky-cracking scream—the screaming of someone very meek conquering a robo-Goliath. And inJohnny Cash’s San Quentin recording of “A Boy Named Sue,” it’s the tidal roar of the inmates, the raw recognition and empathy lifting their voices over “I knew you’d have to get tough or die.”
It’s tantalizing to imagine a team of scientists (or the Jonah Hill character inMoneyball) creating an algorithm out of these elements. Having our own customized appoggiaturic triggers—lock yourself in a bathroom stall, cue up your Appo-Trig on your iPod, and have a good cry—would probably us save thousands in therapist bills. But you can’t fake a well-placed scream, and no lab can synthesize four men singing in telepathic harmony.
We’ll just have to content ourselves with pop music, in all its blind, compromised glory. "The greatest love of all is easy to achieve / Learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all." God rest your soul, Whitney, I wish I believed that. If appoggiatura is a kind of tension, then surely that’s what’s happening between the beauty of that thought and reality. We connect with the conviction, the urgency in her voice, even as we find it missing within ourselves. And we cry.