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Why Some Songs Make Us Cry

Is Adele making you cry — or are you using Adele to bring on the waterworks? It's a little bit of both.
Image: A Teenage Girl Listening to Music
Music is a powerful emotional catalyst, for some more than others.Getty Images / Getty Images

It happens to some of us: You’ll be going along with your day, listening to Spotify, minding your own business and all of the sudden, a song will come on that triggers such a powerfully visceral emotional response you get goosebumps, you get choked up and before you know it, tears are streaming down your face.

Music is a powerful emotional catalyst, for some more than others. How can a few notes strung together or a few notes sung emotional resonate with us so deeply that it triggers goosebumps or tears?

Scientists recently published a study in Scientific Reports that aimed to examine aspects of these types of “peak” emotional responses to music, such as chills or visceral tears — and found these tears to be somewhat cathartic.

People tend to choose music to achieve seven different ways to feel different things.

When you hear a song and get the chills, your parasympathetic nervous system, or “rest and digest” system, is activated, as well as the reward-related brain regions of your brain. Dopamine, a feel-good chemical, is also released so though they can feel a little freaky, the chills you’re feeling (or goosebumps you’re getting) are usually good chills.

While songs that inspire the chills could sound happy or sad, and can arouse you or calm you down, songs that make you cry are usually more sad and calmer, with slower tempos and more minor and diminished chords, to evoke a more sedative, or reflective, mood.

This Is Your Brain On Music

According to findings published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, a group of scientists at the Center for Interdisciplinary Music Research in Finland administered psychological tests and MRIs (brain scans) to better understand how study participants used music to manipulate their feelings — findings that could potentially empower music therapists to help their patients. They figured out that people tend to choose music to feel seven different things: Entertainment, Revival, Strong Sensation, Mental Work, Solace, Diversion and Discharge. They decided the latter three (Solace, Diversion and Discharge) are ways people tend to use music to deal with, or “regulate,” negative feelings.

It’s all a little self-explanatory, but here's how it breaks down:

  • Solace is when people who are sad listen to music to feel understood and less alone.
  • Diversion is when people listen to music to change, or distract themselves, from their mood.
  • Discharge is when people listen to music that matches their mood, like when you’re frustrated in traffic and belt out a heavy metal or punk song to channel your frustration, or facilitate some form of emotional release.

What’s interesting is that men who opted for the Discharge method had a tendency to feel more anxious and neurotic than other people in the study. So, listening to angry music when they felt anger didn’t make them feel any better, in fact, it made them feel worse.

Image: Man Listening to Music with Headphones and Smartphone at Home
Men tend to listen to music that "discharges" an emotion like anger or sadness. Westend61 / Getty Images

What’s more, men who were all about the Discharge method had less activity in the medial prefrontal cortex of their brains (the part that helps you access and organize long-term memories), where women who listened to songs that helped distract them from negative moods (the Diversion method) had more active medial prefrontal cortexes.

It might be more helpful to distract yourself through music than indulge in any negative feelings through it.

Is Music a Good Coping Mechanism?

It depends. “Music is a coping mechanism, and — unfortunately — not all coping mechanisms are good,” reads the study. “For instance, using venting and rumination as coping mechanisms relate positively to depression and other mood disorders. Using distraction and positive reappraisal (or “looking on the bright side”), meanwhile, is negatively correlated with depression.” In other words, it might be more helpful to distract yourself through music than indulge in any negative feelings through it.

Contradicting this hypothesis, scientists performed another study, also published in Frontiers in Neuroscience, to better understand how sad music affects us by investigating the differences between perceived emotion and felt emotion. Their findings were more in line with the first study — that humans are capable of perceiving and understanding the feelings embedded into a song without feeling all the feels, which explains why some people experience pleasure while listening to sad songs.

The Notes in Some Songs Can Make Us Sad, Too

Are there any universal musical characteristics that inspire tears? John Sloboda, a professor of music psychology at London’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama, was interviewed by NPR a few years back on this very topic. He attributes our tears to a musical “ornament,” or fast notes around a central note, called “appoggiatura,” from the Italian word "to lean." The piece goes on to reference a Wall Street Journal article that singles out Adele’s frequent use of this dissonant vocal run in detail — her “yous” are full of them!

Sloboda attributes music that makes us sad to unexpected chord progressions. "Generally music is consonant rather than dissonant, so we expect a nice chord. So when that chord is not quite what we expect, it gives you a little bit of an emotional frisson, because it's strange and unexpected. The music taps into this very primitive system that we have which identifies emotion on the basis of a violation of expectancy. It's like a little upset which then gets resolved or made better in the chord that follows,” he says in the NPR interview.

So why do some of us lose it during “Someone Like You” while others simply appreciate that it’s a decent song? All in all, the answers may lie in the mapping of our brains — both in how the mind and body reacts when we hear a song and how we use music as way to experience and cope with certain feelings. And if that’s true, perhaps, one day, some Adele records could come with a box of tissues.