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.”
(via Why Adele’s ‘Someone Like You’ Makes Everyone Cry - WSJ.com)
Adele’s songs don’t make me cry (except in frustration that they keep playing her same two songs on the radio over and over and over), but identifying appoggiatura as a specific and consistent chill-inducer is pretty cool. This is something I’d noticed as a musician but never knew it’d actually been studied.