The Science of Crying to Adele

Laura’s Team Pick:

Via: The Wall Street Journal

You know those songs you listen to when you need a good cry? Or the ones that sneak up on you and make your eyes start leaking at inopportune moments? As it turns out, there’s some pretty rad science behind all those tears.

This week, the week of Adele’s Grammy sweep, the Wall Street Journal ran a story on what exactly it is about “Someone Like You” that pulls at everyone who listens to it.

Twenty years ago, the British psychologist John Sloboda conducted a simple experiment. He asked music lovers to identify passages of songs that reliably set off a physical reaction, such as tears or goose bumps. Participants identified 20 tear-triggering passages, and when Dr. Sloboda analyzed their properties, a trend emerged: 18 contained a musical device called an ‘appoggiatura.’

An appoggiatura is 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.‘”

Music theory and I broke up after a rocky relationship that lasted from 1998 to 2002, and from what I understand it was with good reason: music can be a manipulative bastard. But like most loves, it can also be a beautiful, heart-wrenching thing that makes you feel altogether human. The more you think about it, the more it makes sense: songs are more than just words set to music. There’s a reason that Sophie B. Hawkins song made me cry when I was 7, even though I’d never lost anyone I loved before.

Everyone likes the occasional cry, but songs don’t get to #1 by making people sad. So what’s up? Are we really just a bunch of masochists in love with our sadness?

If ‘Someone Like You’ produces such intense sadness in listeners, why is it so popular? Last year, Robert Zatorre and his team of neuroscientists at McGill University reported that emotionally intense music releases dopamine in the pleasure and reward centers of the brain, similar to the effects of food, sex and drugs. This makes us feel good and motivates us to repeat the behavior.

In the interest of your brains’s dopamine output, we’ve compiled a list of some of our favorite devastatingly beautiful songs.

Adele: Someone Like You
Fleetwood Mac: Landslide
Daby Toure: Banta (Laura)
Phosphorescent: A Picture of Our Torn Up Praise (Laneia)
Jimmy Eat World: 23 (Riese)
Patti Smith: Pissing in a River (Whitney)
Vanessa Carlton: White Houses (Laura (hon. mention: Katrina))
Otis Redding: Dock of the Bay (Jamie)
Death Cab For Cutie: I Will Follow You Into The Dark (Lizz)
Rent: I’ll Cover You (Reprise) (Riese)
Neutral Milk Hotel: In The Aeroplane Over The Sea (Jamie)
Iron and Wine: Flightless Bird, American Mouth (Laneia)
Regina Spektor: Us (Laura)
Adele: Hometown Glory (Laura)

Appoggiaturi from Autostraddle on 8tracks.

What are your favorite heart-bending songs?

Before you go! Did you like what you just read? We keep Autostraddle majority free-to-read, but it isn't free to create! And yet most readers don't support this indie queer site. Will you be one of the people who do? A+ membership starts at just $4/month or $30/year and they literally keep us from closing. Will you join? Cancel anytime.

Join A+


Laura is a tiny girl who wishes she were a superhero. She likes talking to her grandma on the phone and making things with her hands. Strengths include an impressive knowledge of Harry Potter, the ability to apply sociology to everything under the sun, and a knack for haggling for groceries in Spanish. Weaknesses: Chick-fil-a, her triceps, girls in glasses, and the subjunctive mood. Follow the vagabond adventures of Laura and her bike on twitter [@laurrrrita].

Laura has written 308 articles for us.


  1. Well, this is good timing, as I intend to spend a lot of time crying to sad music about the fact I won’t be attending A-camp.

    U2’s ‘With Or Without You’ is on that list for me… also appropriate in the circumstances ;)

  2. Laura, guuuurl, we have an ex in common — i dated Music Theory, too. We broke up in 2004. Times were rough. As much as I tried, I never really understood her beyond surface level. She made me a better musician, and I’ll always remember her for that, but our relash ended pretty dissonant–no resolution.

  3. My gal and I were just discussing two nights ago how “White Houses” is one of those pure pleasures, like getting to the top of a mountain after a hike, or driving along PCH at sunset with someone you love. Glorious playlist.

  4. That playlist, YES.

    For me it’s Don’t Know Why by Norah Jones. And also, Blackbird (original and Sarah Mclachlan cover). Seriously these songs: RIVERS. On my face.

    Ok and also…. The Rainbow Connection by Kermit. Yep.

  5. My go to Sad song of late is “Putting the dog to sleep” by the antlers.
    One day it came on my shuffle, and it was just the right brand of morose for my mood.

    I mean, the opening line is
    Prove to me, I’m not going to die alone

  6. Blindsided by Bon Iver always ends me. There is no hope for me to not be a crying mess whenever I hear it!! Or anything else on that album, for that matter. Also 9 Crimes by Damien Rice. I’m gonna start crying just thinking about this now!!!

  7. Urgh, I have wept to too many of these songs! Now I see it was this ‘appoggiatura’ malarkey…

    Personal favourites are ‘Flightless Bird, American Mouth’ (I love me some Iron and Wine) and ‘Landslide’

  8. Jeff Buckley’s Hallelujah is my favorite crying song, i listened to it all the time for a while. Genius Next Door and Man of a Thousand Faces by Regina Spektor break my heart. Also Death Cab for Cutie, Transatlanticism. Straight by Amanda Palmer. Elliot Smith, Twilight. okay, a lot of my music is crying music…

  9. I learned to cry again when I was 16 and it happened when I listened to Tori Amos’ “Winter” on repeat.

    as for “Someone like you” – I can’t cry to it anymore, I have to laugh almost every time I hear it. But that’s a different story.

  10. I lost it at “I’ll Cover You.” That’s one of the few songs that consistently makes me cry.

    A song that makes me cry is “Open At The Close” and “End Of An Era” by Oliver Boyd and the Remembralls. Yes, they’re Wizard Rock, but I’m a nerd.

  11. Just thinking of Someone like you causes me to want to cry, the first time I heard it, I thought of my ex and it made me cry, loved the song but tore me up. A few months ago, she took her life, and now I literally cannot listen to the song, the first few notes and i feel my chest tighten up, have to turn it off or I will almost sob

  12. More or less every song in Elliott Smith’s discography works here.

    I’d also like to nominate:
    “Sister Winter” – Sufjan Stevens
    “Harmonix” – Surfer Blood
    “Shot in the Back of the Head” – Moby
    “Candy Says” – Velvet Underground
    “Adieu Mon Coeur (Acoustic)” – My Brightest Diamond
    “Dreams” – Fleetwood Mac
    “How It Ends” – Devotchka
    “Jed’s Other Poem (Beautiful Ground)” – Grandaddy
    “Legs Away” – Mother Mother

    Now, if you’ll all pardon me, I’m going to listen to “212” on repeat until I feel less like melting into a puddle of despair after listening to all these songs.

  13. William Fitzsimmons – I Don’t Feel It Anymore
    Terra Naomi – Flesh for Bones
    Ray LaMontagne – This Love is Over
    Olafur Arnalds – Undan Hulu (ok, this one is instrumental)
    Francis Cabrel – C’était l’Hiver
    Brandi Carlile – That Year
    Bebe – Cuidándote

    +1 Sarah McLachlan – Angel
    +1 Rent – I’ll Cover You reprise

    Hmm. Apparently I like sad music.

  14. Let Me Leave – Marc Broussard : Ugh. Heard this live. Became an emotional wreck.

    Ben – Michael Jackson: I’m sorry but there is nothing more sad than a boy writing and singing a song to a rat about him being his best/only friend.

    Exhale (Shoop Shoop) – Whitney Houston: This is my go to “listen to this while you’re feeling emotional and need to cry but can’t”

    This Is Me – Jen Foster: Song about coming out to your parents. How could I not cry?

  15. These are my sad songs:

    9 Crimes by Damien Rice
    A Man/Me/Then Jim by Rilo Kiley
    Elephants by Rachael Yamagata
    Sorrow by The National

    The Freshman by The Verve Pipe
    Brick by Ben Folds Five

    also, maybe something super emotional happened to me whilst listening to The Decemberist’s new album but it always makes me sad for whatever reason.

  16. In California by Joanna Newsom
    Lover You Should’ve Come Over by Jeff Buckley
    Colors and the Kids by Cat Power
    Good Woman by Cat Power
    Romeo and Juliet by Dire Straits
    Birds by Neil Young
    Nightswimming by REM
    Empty by Ray LaMontagne
    Sometimes I Still Feel the Bruise by Trembling Blue Stars

  17. Sia – Breathe Me, I’m In Here (piano version), etc.

    Rent – I’ll Cover You (reprise) is the reason why I started playing the piano again! One day I’ll be able to play it, but it’s still too hard for an amateur like me.

    Also certain songs by Our Lady Peace.

  18. “Someone Like You” makes me want to weep in the middle of the road or wherever i am when the song comes on.

    Sarah McLachlan’s “When She Loved Me” (anything by Sarah actually),
    The Red Jumpsuit Apparatus’ “Your Guardian Angel.

    One of the most depressing song in my opinion is the Tamil song “Thenpandi Cheemaiyile” sung and composed by Illayaraja. You can listen to the song here;

    Now i have to go do something to cheer myself up :(

  19. Left Behind from Spring Awakening, One Voice from bare: a pop opera, and 23 by MC Lars all make me sob literally every time I listen to them.

    …Wow, this list makes it very obvious where my issues lie. But really, these songs are heart wrenching.

  20. I have literally been moved to tears by only one song–“Ara Batur” by Sigur Ros. The first time I listened to it, I was driving home from packing up my grandmother’s apartment after she died. The crescendo towards the end still gets me every time.

    Aside from that, there are only songs that make me FEEL like crying. SUCH AS:

    “Anthems For a Seventeen-Year-Old Girl” by Broken Social Scene

    “Hide and Seek” by Imogen Heap

    “Konstantine” by Something Corporate (because the fifteen-year-old in me is still alive and weeping openly)

  21. I have an iTunes playlist called Feelings. Hallelujah was already mentioned, here are some of the other songs.

    Catching Kisses (Acoustic) – I Spy Strangers
    The Sea Is A Good Place To Think Of The Sea – Los Campesinos!
    Hear You Me – Jimmy Eat World (MY HEART! ALL THE FEELINGS!)
    Stars – The Swellers
    Meter And Verse – Young Guns
    Top Of The World – The Blackout
    Helena – My Chemical Romance
    Konstantine – Something Corporate (which is probably EVEN MORE FEELINGS THAN JIMMY EAT WORLD IS)

  22. I’m secretly a crier. Like if I go to a funeral, I won’t generally cry (exceptions were for my grandmother and her sister), but let me see the preview to the movie Dreamgirls and I’m wrecked… so here are my sad songs:

    And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going – Jennifer Hudson (why won’t they love her??)
    Save Me – Aimee Mann
    Left and Leaving – The Weakerthans
    Lua – Bright Eyes
    Judas – Antje Duvekot
    Even Though I Hate You, I Love You – Davichi

    and of course a lot of the songs already mentioned make me bawl too – Sufjan Stevens, Fleetwood Mac, and Sarah McLachlan = +1’s.

  23. M.I.A. – Caps Lock
    The Weeknd – The Birds Part 2
    CocoRosie – Summer Breeze (You Wanna Fuck Me)
    Active Child – Hanging On
    Billie Holiday – Strange Fruit
    Kanye West – Lost in the World
    Cat Power – Names
    Drake – Doing it Wrong
    Portishead – Roads
    and, naturally, Usher – Confessions Part II

  24. tear and soul jerkers:

    sara bareilles – “gravity” and “between the lines”
    bon iver – “holocene” and “i can’t make you love me”
    elissa – nseet ensak
    the civil wars – poison and wine
    shakira – “no” and “pienso en ti”
    joseph arthur – september baby
    cinematic orchestra – to build a home
    christina perri – arms
    barcelona – get up
    band of horses – noone’s gonna love you
    eva cassidy – time after time

  25. Sooooo many…where do I start:

    The Civil Wars – I Want You Back
    Tweet – Smoking Cigarettes
    Tegan & Sara – Call It Off
    Muse – Uno
    Drake – Doing It Wrong, Deceiving, & Shot For Me
    Evans Blue – Over
    Trey Songz – Cant Be Friends
    Kanye West – Devil In A Blue Dress
    Adele – Chasing Pavements or almost anything else she has of course

    and of course there’s more

  26. I have a playlist tailored specifically for moments like these. And the title of my playlist? “Stop Crying Your Heart Out” in honor of Oasis.

    Some favorites:
    Christina Perri – Jar of Hearts
    Glee – Get It Right
    Bruno Mars – It Will Rain
    Katy Perry – The One That Got Away (Boyce Avenue cover hits the spot)
    Aaron & Andrew – New Start
    A Fine Frenzy – Almost Lover
    Aqualung – Breaking My Heart
    The Fray – Heaven Forbid
    Keith Urban – Tonight I Wanna Cry
    Colbie Caillat – I Never Told You
    Regina Spektor – Hero
    Damien Rice

    the list goes on.

Contribute to the conversation...

Yay! You've decided to leave a comment. That's fantastic. Please keep in mind that comments are moderated by the guidelines laid out in our comment policy. Let's have a personal and meaningful conversation and thanks for stopping by!