Tracks of our tears show how a great song can melt even the hardest heart

Lots of couples will be mistily playing ‘their tune’ today – but what makes the kind of song that jerks those tears? Sheena Hastings reports.

DAVID King knows a thing or two about songs that make the heart strings go zing, and the many top-selling musical shows he produces to tour the world will contain a few tear-jerkers as well as the more upbeat numbers which send the crowd home happy.

He may be appear like a tough customer, used to making difficult decisions about performing talent and what kind of show will fill theatres from Sheffield to Chicago, but the 55-year-old from Leeds says he is reduced to a puddle by some songs. “I’ll readily admit that Smile by Nat ‘King’ Cole is the one that always gets me. It’s an achingly sad song – you’d have to have a heart of stone not to relate to the lyrics and it always reminds me of my late father.” While King’s shows – like the long-running Spirit of the Dance – are high in feelgood factor, he is also interested in more melancholy songs, the ones that make our eyes prickle uncontrollably.

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He commissioned a survey of 4,000 people, asking what songs made people cry, and it showed that 70 per cent of men had been reduced to tears by a song, while in women the figure was 90 per cent. The song most likely to switch on the waterworks was Everybody Hurts by REM. Also up there among the most tear-jerking were Elton John’s Candle in the Wind, The Living Years by Mike and the Mechanics, Yesterday by the Beatles and Whitney Houston’s I Will Always Love You. Ten per cent more younger men said they’d cried to a song than men over 55.

So prone are people to coming over all tearful about (newly-crowned Queen of the Grammy Awards), Adele’s Someone Like You that the popular US TV show Saturday Night Live apparently recently ran a sketch in which a group of work colleagues get together and listen to the song just so they can enjoy a good cry. Joking aside, there is huge emotional relief to be had from putting on a song we know will evoke certain emotions, say the experts.

While some couples may enjoy “their” romantic song on Valentine’s Day and perhaps become moist-eyed as they relive happy times past, those same songs may leave others cold because they make no such nostalgic happy associations. But those who’ve lost or broken up with someone they used to enjoy a certain song or piece of music with may listen to it again and for a complicated mixture of reasons. Tears can be bitter and they can be sweet – or both.

How do you explain the exquisite effects of certain songs on certain people, and is there a formula for the perfectly heart-rending song?

Composers, musicologists, theatre producers and psychologists come at the question from different directions, and between them they may crack the code completely one day. Psychologists with a special interest in music have analysed Someone Like You to figure out why it elicits the emotional response it does.

As with all songs and other passages of music that move us, some of our response is influenced by personal experience (who were you with and where were you when you first heard that tune?) and culture play a part, but it’s been found that certain features used in music are more likely to evoke strong emotions. Bach, Mozart and Beethoven surely consciously manipulated their listeners with such ornamentations long before Lennon and McCartney figured out how it was done. But often a non-classically trained songwriter can simply create “sob-songs” using intuition and experience, having listened to music intensively for years but without actually knowing about all of the technicalities involved.

Someone Like You has been found to include repetitions of notes which clash with the melody to create dissonant sound, and this triggers a physical reaction like goosebumps and tears. Several instances of these notes close together can produce tension followed by resolution which literally ends in tears – an experience that can feel good even though tears are involved and it is called “chills”, according to the study done a few years ago by Dr Martin Guhn of the University of British Columbia and colleague Martin Zentner. But how much of the reaction is the music and how much due to the lyrics?

Prof Zentner, now at York University’s department of psychology, and Dr Guhn gleaned further information by measuring physiological responses to Mendelssohn’s Trio for Piano and Barber’s Adagio for Strings and then testing subjects’ heart rate, goosebumps and sweating rate.

The research established that chill-provoking passages of music include a minimum of four features: they begin softly then suddenly become loud, feature the abrupt introduction of a new instrument of harmony, an expansion of frequency and an unexpected element.

All in all, Someone Like You is measured to be a near-perfect example of a tear-jerking song – even though it doesn’t appear in David King’s Top Sobs.

“Sadness as evoked by music is not the same as sadness in general,” says Prof Zentner. “Listeners clearly show signs of sadness when listening to such songs or music, but it isn’t the same as sadness experienced in everyday life. We’ve been trying to identify the kinds of emotions evoked in response to music and we know they include nostalgia, tenderness, longing and joy.

“Music accesses something that nothing else does, emotions that we don’t experience from other kinds of stimulation.”

One of the psychology department’s PhD students hit on the idea of testing listeners’ responses to Eurovision Song Contest songs with versions of each sung in different languages.

“The same reaction was evoked when the listener did not understand the lyrics they were hearing as when they did,” says Prof Zentner. “Although we can say that music carries the larger effect, it’s not safe to say that the words can be disregarded completely. There’s also the question of how much reaction is produced by a performer and their personality.”

Prof Zentner says a link can be made between musical choices and personality and we often choose to play a particular style of music in order to experience certain emotions. Hence the idea of going back again and again to songs we know may reduce us to tears.

Such is the power of music to trigger emotion that some medical practitioners use it to help in chronic pain management because it helps to release pain-relieving neuro-transmitters in the brain, says Prof Zentner.

He believes commercial websites that play music clips could use “emotional algorithms” to analyse a user’s musical choices and offer them more in the same vein, which would lengthen their visit.

“Plato was so absolutely convinced of the power of music to produce certain emotions that he thought it was dangerous because it could encourage people to be war-like,” says Dr Martin Iddon, senior lecturer in composition and critical musicology at Leeds University.

“When it comes to provoking feelings of melancholy, composers from Bach to Gershwin have used a ‘keening’ motif , with a quiet slow chromatic development followed by a ‘falling away’ – it’s there in at the beginning of Yesterday by The Beatles, for example, leaving the listener feeling bereft and sad...

“Of course there are some songs where the emotional impact is driven by the words, not the music – and REM’s Everybody Hurts is one example.”

Top of the sobs

Everybody Hurts – REM

Candle in the Wind – Elton John

The Living Years – Mike and the Mechanics

I Will Always Love You – Whitney Houston

Nothing Compares 2 U – Prince/Sinead O’Connor

Hallelujah - Alexandra Burke and/or Jeff Buckley

My Heart Will Go On – Celine Dion

Fix You – Coldplay

Seasons in the Sun – Terry Jacks

Without You – Harry Nilsson

Yesterday – The Beatles

All By Myself – Eric Carmen

My Way – Frank Sinatra

Sound of Silence – Simon and Garfunkel

Ain’t No Sunshine – Bill Withers

Love Will Tear Us Apart – Joy Division.