The Secrets of Adele's "Someone Like You" - RSA

The Secrets of Adele's "Someone Like You"

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  • Social brain
  • Arts and society

I am writing while listening to Adele singing 'Someone Like you' at the Brit Awards in 2011. The song is intensely emotional in the literal sense of e-mote, to move, and though I am not crying, I feel that the song matters deeply, that her voice connects directly to a non-conscious part of me that is otherwise hard to reach.

The conventional wisdom is that the song is all about the experience of losing somebody you love, and that we relate to the song at that level of projective identification. That may be true for some, but I think it is a relatively shallow interpretation. The emotional connection feels deeper than shared memories of heartache.

I became aware of Adele's voice long after she was a superstar, and enjoyed it all the more because I had not been swept up by her stardom and could appreciate the music on my own terms. I found myself playing Youtube videos of her songs for hours on end. I felt slightly uneasy about this, if only because there is definitely a part of me (admittedly not a particularly worthy part) that feels a bit shocked to be moved by a 20-something from Tottenham singing about her ex-boyfriend.

In this respect, it may be possible to connect details of Adele's biography, particularly her father walking out on the family when she was two, and playing a limited role in her upbringing, to the reason her album 21 in general, but 'Someone like you' in particular, feels more primal than a mere loss of a young lover. On this theory, she may think she is singing about her ex-boyfriend, about romantic pain, but really it is about a deeper sense of existential abandonment, the perennial search for missing parts of oneself.

That's pure speculation, but the point is that music seems to connect to the form of our emotions, not the content. Music doesn't generally make us feel e.g. sadness, joy, grief etc, but it does tap into the form of emotion we are feeling and changes its 'shape'; how deep, how intense, how sublime and so forth.

"Music is most likely to tingle the spine, in short, when it includes surprises in volume, timbre and harmonic pattern."

There are lots of sources on musicology who have addressed these questions in more depth than I can here. For instance, I remember Czikszentmihlayi writes of three levels of musical appreciation in his classic book, Flow. From memory, these are hedonic appreciation(sensory pleasure in the moment), analogical appreciation(this is like something else, makes me think of people, times and places etc- this level is often used to explain the success of 'someone like you'). And then there is technical appreciation, which you only really grasp when you are a trained musician who knows how much skill is involved in producing the combination of harmonies, melodies and so forth that gives rise to the musical experience.

There is also a psychological explanation that is more cognitive in nature, unpacked in a relatively recent piece in the Wall Street Journal called 'Anatomy of a Tear Jerker'.

One key feature of a powerful song, it seems, is "appoggiatura": "A type of ornamental note that clashes with the melody just enough to create a dissonant sound. "This generates tension in the listener," said Martin Guhn, a psychologist at the University of British Columbia who co-wrote a 2007 study on the subject. "When the notes return to the anticipated melody, the tension resolves, and it feels good."

The article suggests tear jerkers share at least four features:

1) They began softly and then suddenly became loud.

2) They included an abrupt entrance of a new "voice," either a new instrument or harmony.

3) And they often involved an expansion of the frequencies played.

4) All the passages contained unexpected deviations in the melody or the harmony.

The authors argue: "Music is most likely to tingle the spine, in short, when it includes surprises in volume, timbre and harmonic pattern."

"The more emotions a song provokes—whether depressing or uplifting—the more we crave the song".

There is also a neuroscientific dimension. Measuring listeners' responses, Dr. Zatorre's team found that goose bumps correlate with the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine, even when the music is extremely sad. Moreover, as the music business already knows, the more emotions a song provokes—whether depressing or uplifting—the more we crave the song.

Apparently 'Someone like you', with the sonorous voice, periodic surprises and soulful lyrics is a classic in this regard, so if you do nothing else good today, take a few moments to enjoy.

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  • At my daughter's Year Six leavers' assembly, the whole class performed a dance to "someone like you". it was clinically designed to make every parent in the room cry. It worked.

    According to Adele, a key part of her music education was watching Later with Jools Holland every week with her mum.