You're making yourself cry, dammit February 28, 2012 5:14 PM   Subscribe

Metafilter's own Speicus' takedown of the "science" behind "Adele making people cry" quotes a lot of MeFites.
posted by k8t to MetaFilter-Related at 5:14 PM (59 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite

He is great! That was great!
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 5:15 PM on February 28, 2012 [6 favorites]


*cries*
posted by jonmc at 5:18 PM on February 28, 2012 [13 favorites]


That was nifty. Although now I have that damn song stuck in my head again. It doesn't make me cry; it makes me want to punch someone.
posted by rtha at 5:34 PM on February 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


Nice! I enjoyed that thread quite a bit, and that's a great rebuttal. (And now I'm listening to the damn song again.)
posted by restless_nomad (staff) at 5:34 PM on February 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


Ka-pow.

That reminds me to have Isaac review the FutureHit DNA book I've got laying around, which purports to use SCIENCE! to predict pop hits.
posted by klangklangston at 5:37 PM on February 28, 2012


Truly good writing makes me weep with joy.
posted by KokuRyu at 5:55 PM on February 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


I wish he had stuck to explaining the clear flaws with the article and left out some of his more questionable claims, e.g. that it's "oppressive" to expect music to express emotion at all.

By the way, everyone always cites Stravinsky saying music is powerless express anything. It's hard to resist such a contrarian quote from such a renowned composer. But musicians and composers are often better at making music than at articulately theorizing about it. Stravinsky himself made wildly contradictory claims about music's expressive power. He later clarified his famous statement:
The over-publicized bit about expression (or non-expression) was simply a way of saying that music is supra-personal and super-real and as such beyond verbal meanings and verbal descriptions. It was aimed against the notion that a piece of music is in reality a transcendental idea "expressed in terms of" music, with the reductio ad absurdum implication that exact sets of correlatives must exist between a composer's feelings and his notation. It was offhand and annoyingly incomplete, but even the stupider critics could have seen that it did not deny musical expressivity . . .
Of course, unlike Stravinsky's original overstatement, his sensible, nuanced clarification did not become famous.

I'm also tired of the facile claim that music works by "playing with our expectations." Then why is it that I usually find music dull and vague when I'm hearing it for the first time, and I often find it extremely moving when I know it by heart?
posted by John Cohen at 6:00 PM on February 28, 2012 [3 favorites]


The dance remix of it makes me cry.
posted by Threeway Handshake at 6:07 PM on February 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


The article: The burden on music to communicate certain, specific emotions can be oppressive.

John Cohen: it's "oppressive" to expect music to express emotion at all.

I think you may have "generalized" the article's point.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 6:07 PM on February 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


I like Adele, but I find this song entirely forgettable, and thus every time I read the title I hear in my head a song that is sung by Klaus Meine and is nothing like the Adele song, but it is very emotional.
posted by oneirodynia at 6:20 PM on February 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


Hi! I want to favorite everything in this thread. You are all my favorites.

John, I didn't mean to state that it's always oppressive to expect music to express emotion, only that some people find it burdensome. Sorry if I didn't make that clear. Anyway, there's a reason I quoted Cage instead of Stravinsky; I think he captured the problematic nature of music needing to be emotionally expressive more clearly, as well as the exasperation that comes with failed communication. And personally, I'm much more in agreement with Stravinsky's "nuanced" statement than the famous one. If I were to get persnickety I'd make a distinction between "expression" and "self-expression" and say that Stravinsky probably believed in the former but not the latter.

I'm also tired of the facile claim that music works by "playing with our expectations." Then why is it that I usually find music dull and vague when I'm hearing it for the first time, and I often find it extremely moving when I know it by heart?

Well, you may find this equally facile, but I'd guess that when you hear it for the first time you have little to no expectations, because you don't have a mental map of the piece yet. When you know it "by heart" you know it pretty well, and when you start to get sick of it, you know it too well.
posted by speicus at 6:25 PM on February 28, 2012 [5 favorites]


Damn. I knew he was awesome, but I didn't realize what an excellent writer he is.
posted by spiderskull at 6:25 PM on February 28, 2012


I'm also tired of the facile claim that music works by "playing with our expectations." Then why is it that I usually find music dull and vague when I'm hearing it for the first time, and I often find it extremely moving when I know it by heart?

On second thought I see more where you're coming from, but feel like it's more of a failure of terminology than anything. Expectation conjures up this idea of a dialectic between boredom and surprise, but even if we know something is coming, we still expect it. We may want it or dread it, but we still wait for it. We may not know exactly when it's coming. Maybe "anticipation" is a better word.

The piece you don't know, you may have no expectations for (unless it's in a kind of dialogue with music you already know). When you've heard it multiple times, you have a sense of what's coming, and anticipate what's about to happen. Does that make sense?
posted by speicus at 6:49 PM on February 28, 2012


I've known specius was awesome for nearly 2 decades. /hipstermefite
posted by k8t at 6:59 PM on February 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


I should mention that k8t basically held me at gunpoint and forced me to write this article. It would not exist without her thuggery.
posted by speicus at 7:06 PM on February 28, 2012 [6 favorites]


Very nicely written! Refreshingly cogent!
posted by Salvor Hardin at 7:08 PM on February 28, 2012


Thug life.
posted by k8t at 7:28 PM on February 28, 2012 [6 favorites]


The piece you don't know, you may have no expectations for (unless it's in a kind of dialogue with music you already know). When you've heard it multiple times, you have a sense of what's coming, and anticipate what's about to happen.

I think more specifically it's often about repetition with variations -- that is, you have a repeated rhythm or melody that gets repeated with small changes throughout the song, so you have this layering affect of memory with whatever is playing at that instant, even the first time you listen to it. Most pop songs are also fairly formulaic, so you're also going to go into it with a whole lot of expectations that can be reinforced or subverted as you listen to it.

However, once you know a song well, you've not only got the layering of multiple keys and instruments together at any given moment of time, but you also have an additional layer of memory and expectation of what's coming that adds to it even more. I don't know if other people are like me, but when I'm listening to a song, my experience of listening to it is very rarely limited to that particular moment of time, but I'll have the whole song, in a way, in my mind at once -- and also memories of places that I've been when I heard the song, and the emotions that I was feeling while I was listening to it. Experiencing music is as much about remembering as it is about listening.

I don't think I've put that as well as I could, but I think that the psychology of music is more complicated than most people give it credit for, and it's not just as simple as playing notes in the right order.
posted by empath at 7:28 PM on February 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


I guess to see what I mean about the effect of memory while listening to music.

Imagine a song that modulates up to a new key during one section -- while you're listening, that can make that whole section of the song sound more uplifting or emotional.

Now take that section of the song and move it down a semitone, and listen to the song again.. it sounds terrible, because it's now 'out of key'.

Now, imagine that you take that section of the song and play just that section for people without the rest of the song, normally, or down a semitone. Nobody is going to say that either one is particular out of key or particularly uplifting, because they're not listening to it with the memory in their mind of the section that came before -- something that you can still 'hear', somehow, without the sound actually playing.

Once you listen to a song a bunch of times, you have that memory effect as soon as the song starts, so it's a much richer experience of listening, especially if it's a song that 'rewards repeated listening' -- that is there are more and more details that you can attend to every time you listen to it, while reinforcing which you already remember about it.
posted by empath at 7:36 PM on February 28, 2012


Adele actually has a great sounding voice despite her odd affectations & excessive trills & vocal fry - things that might be as much a producer's fault, actually, but she just makes me miss Dusty Springfield and Patsy Cline even more. When Dusty hits that high note at the end of the "footprints in the sand" line of Windmills Of Your Mind, it makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up Every. Single. Time. It's not science, it's just a once-in-a-generation voice. Adele would do well to listen to some Dusty.
posted by Devils Rancher at 9:12 PM on February 28, 2012


I should have been in bed half an hour ago. Damn you for writing such an interesting article, specius! Also, thanks...
posted by owtytrof at 9:26 PM on February 28, 2012


This is neat! Yay everyone.

Also, for a datapoint, this joint just hits a sieve in my head. Like I know Ipve heard it a thousand fucking times, but I'll be damned if I can remember anything but that belt around liquid wish YIU the beeeeeeeeeeeest and then after that it comes intro retroactive amnesia, I'm sure it's nice but for some reason my brain rejects it .
posted by The Whelk at 9:52 PM on February 28, 2012


I am not a huge fan of Adele or "Someone Like You", but I do actually like her song "Rolling in the Deep".
posted by two lights above the sea at 10:11 PM on February 28, 2012


As a fun example of peoples' taste in music, this song makes me feel extremely overjoyed and energetic, and this song makes my heart and tears swell to capacity with sadness.

My husband would probably prefer two cats simultaneously vomiting in his ears than to hear either song.
posted by two lights above the sea at 10:17 PM on February 28, 2012


That Adele song does nothing for me either. In fact, when I think of songs that choke me up they always feature vocals that sound like the singer is on the verge of breaking down in tears, (or singing through tears) and I don't feel that emotion coming through Adele sings that song, despite her vocal fry. I don't think it has much to do with the score as much as an empathetic reaction- sort of how watching someone in a movie fight back tears often prompts some of my own. Also- the lyrics do have to be at least a little bittersweet for it to work with me.

two lights above the sea- that's so funny. One of the maybe 5 songs that do it for me is an Antony and The Johnsons song from the same album, but not that one. It's Bird Gerl

(okay U Are My Sister does it a bit too.)

cheesy as it sounds, two of the others are Heroes and Angie
posted by stagewhisper at 11:04 PM on February 28, 2012


Nice article, the shout out to Cage is appreciated. Though we obviously can't say the unknown is what we like about music (it's unknown, we can't like it yet), count me among those who will at least defend the practice of attempting to expand the boundaries of music, and who are saddened by the normative reduction of art to button pushing formula.

I get that some people are looking to get their buttons pushed, but at least leave room for those of us that want other things too.
posted by idiopath at 11:12 PM on February 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


That post and thread gave me hives, and it wasn't just the link that bothered me, but some of the similar kinds of analysis that occurred in that thread.

I'm open to the idea that there are some things about music that are either inherent (the mathematics of sound waves and how they interact with each is not arbitrary) or a function of human biology (what are they? I don't know, but I'm willing to believe such things exist), but anyone with even a marginal education in musicology, theory, the history of music (worldwide), knows that it may well be the case that the one thing that is universal about music among humans is to improperly universalize about music. Irony intended.

People everywhere have always thought that the things that appeal/repulse them in music, and the things that music makes them feel, are inherent qualities of the music, not socially constructed. And, over and over and over, they're proven wrong.

These days, we get to live in a an era of burgeoning brain research of whatever variety where every goddamn aspect of human experience and behavior is essentialized to the biology of human cognition, or one step removed from that. The irony for me is that I'm not ultimately a relativist on these matters and I'm inclined toward this kind of reductionism in general. But, dammit, we're being inundated these days by Bad Science and Bad Journalism of this nature. I'm so tired of it.

So, anyway, thanks ever so much, specius, for being a voice of skepticism and expertise in one such case. It's a pebble in the flood, but every effort is greatly appreciated. At least by me.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 11:32 PM on February 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


I don't know much about history music theory, but I do remember the first time I heard "Rolling in the Deep": I was in the grocery store, and I clearly remember thinking, "wow, this is precisely the kind of song that would have made me break down sobbing hysterically in the frozen food aisle when I was going through my last breakup (a la that embarrassing incident with 'I Will Always Love You' and a Sara Lee cheesecake) but all I can think of now is how I like her voice a lot but I wish she wasn't quite so shrieky, but still, nice tune." Which I guess means that I concur with the contention that our responses to music are socially constructed? (I certainly concur Devils Rancher's contention that everyone needs to listen to more Dusty Springfield.)

Anyway, nicely done, speicus!
posted by scody at 11:53 PM on February 28, 2012


In the wake of the article, discussion on websites like Metafilter revealed not only agreement, but also substantial bemusement and dissension
[...]
Are these people just cold, emotionless robots? Well, no.


Speak for yourself, meatbag.
posted by GLaDOS at 3:20 AM on February 29, 2012 [2 favorites]


Oh, it's that song. Before our wedding last summer, I'd secretly made a CD with a suitable piece of walking-down-the-aisle music - it was 'If I Only Had a Brain' from the Wizard of Oz, actually (because what could be more appropriate?). But for some reason, Mrs Morte (to be) didn't know that I had this CD, and so just picked randomly from a menu of tracks she'd never heard of. So I'm there with my CD, and the registrar tells me that Mrs Morte has already chosen something, and we end up walking in to what sounds to me like some dreadfully bland pop tune (namely, 'Someone Like You'). Mercifully it was a very short walk, and they faded the song out quickly.

For the whole flipping day, people were coming up to me telling me that it was their favourite song and how it had made them cry, leaving me to explain that it was all a terrible mistake, and they should have been laughing instead.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 3:57 AM on February 29, 2012 [3 favorites]


Adele schmele. When I feel like being overcome by chills and then joyous involuntary weeping, my go-to is still Rocket's Tail.
posted by flabdablet at 4:14 AM on February 29, 2012


And for those currently suffering from earworms: medicine!
posted by flabdablet at 4:33 AM on February 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


le morte de bea arthur: Something about that story makes it the best metaphor for meaning in culture ever. A random choice, though not really random, for an important moment, which seems incredibly appropriate to the observers, yet on observation is actually somewhat inappropriately significant (loss, rather than celebration), transforms from this objective vantage point to be actually quite touching that two people could be so laid back about the whole experience, proving that the essence of their relationship is really delighted absurdity at the bathetic mistake.

Anyway, congratulations!
posted by Potomac Avenue at 4:49 AM on February 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm also tired of the facile claim that music works by "playing with our expectations." Then why is it that I usually find music dull and vague when I'm hearing it for the first time, and I often find it extremely moving when I know it by heart?

Jokes also work by playing with your expectations, but knowing a joke doesn't make it not funny. Expectation here doesn't mean your expectation for the song or joke, it means the rules that typical musical or linguistic discourse follows. You've learned both of those through years of experience; so listening to a song a few times isn't going to do away with an expectation.

As for why you like a song better when you listen to it more, I think there are several reasons for that, including something called "mere exposure" and (related) fluency. Just speaking for myself, when I know a song well, I better understand how that song violates the expectations. A song is a stream of information, not all of which you can apprehend at once. I would say this probably drives why you find it "dull and vague" on first listen. On subsequent listens, the information you have about the song continues to grow; new layers of understanding are laid down, and you better understand the relationship of the song to the typical rules that music follows. Thus, even a song you "know" can lead be a source of new violations of expectations.
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 5:12 AM on February 29, 2012 [2 favorites]


Well done specius. That article was all kinds of bullshit even in it's representation of Sloboda's dated reductionist bs.
posted by spitbull at 6:02 AM on February 29, 2012


*its*
posted by spitbull at 6:02 AM on February 29, 2012


speicus
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 6:11 AM on February 29, 2012


Alex Ross (New Yorker music critic, author of The Rest Is Noise and Listen To This) notes speicus's article approvingly.
posted by dfan at 6:41 AM on February 29, 2012 [2 favorites]


We need a LOLSCIENTISM tag.
 
posted by Herodios at 7:55 AM on February 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


Fantastic.

"But these expectations are malleable; if every songwriter picked up on this trick and made it utterly commonplace, it would no longer be quite as effective. Music is always a moving target."

(And Alex Ross: "So many of these how-does-music-work articles and books seem to view music as one thing, as a standardized mechanical apparatus whose tricks can be figured out.")

That really gets to the heart of the matter for me. It doesn't move me because the emotional cues are so obvious to my ears and the manipulation is so readily on display. And it doesn't move me because my experience of true sadness is that it crushes you so much you can barely even muster up a singing voice, let alone Capital-S Singer shenanigans. Music is a moving target. Pound on the same emotional cues over and over again, flash neon signs saying "EMOTIONS!" and I'll fall for it a few times but not every time. Also, the production is so loud and upfront that there's no real room for subtlety, patience, space to draw my emotions out (which are fickle things and take to hiding.)
posted by naju at 8:41 AM on February 29, 2012


That was so neat! Thank you speicus, and thank you k8t for bringing this to MetaTalk!
posted by Greg Nog at 8:44 AM on February 29, 2012


Oooh, Alex Ross reads metafilter. Is he a member?
posted by Think_Long at 9:51 AM on February 29, 2012


I assume that Alex Ross just saw speicus's NewMusicBox article.
posted by dfan at 9:57 AM on February 29, 2012


Well I would assume he is a member, and he has a really embarrassing user name like, "fart" or something.

My assumptions make me smile.
posted by Think_Long at 10:01 AM on February 29, 2012


I wish this article wasn't so well-reasoned so I could make a crack about "speicus's specious arguments."
posted by Zozo at 10:02 AM on February 29, 2012


I wish this article wasn't so well-reasoned so I could make a crack about "speicus's specious arguments."

Probably wouldn't have been worth it; that crack is only zozo.
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 10:10 AM on February 29, 2012 [2 favorites]


Speak for yourself, meatbag.
posted by GLaDOS at 3:20 AM on February 29 [1 favorite +] [!]


Come on, I know you cry when you hear the Terminator 2 soundtrack.
posted by speicus at 10:34 AM on February 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


I loved the article, but I read it all the way through without once hearing the song under discussion in my head. I'm familiar with the song and Adele, but when I hear her sing all can think about is nodules and polyps, so I seem to have effectively blocked her music out of my mind.
However now I'm stuck with an "If I Only Had a Brain" earworm.
posted by Floydd at 10:44 AM on February 29, 2012


I have never heard this song, but I already hate it. Adele, you're wrong. Everyone knows there's No One Like You.

Also: rolling in the deep what, precisely?
posted by Eideteker at 11:54 AM on February 29, 2012


Also: rolling in the deep what, precisely?

Yes! What does that song even mean? The first time I heard it was on Glee, and I assumed that it was a much older song, and that "rolling in the deep" was some African American R&B vernacular that I was unfamiliar with. But then I found out it was a very young white British woman who wrote it and now I wonder if it's some Gen Y Anglo vernacular that I am unfamiliar with.

Neither here nor there, so um, good show everybody!
posted by Biblio at 1:40 PM on February 29, 2012


the SCIENCE Behind Why You Like Tacos

Like all delicious foods, tacos excite the sushi receptors in the perifrontal cortex. The shell activates the nori modulation sequence, and then there is an immediate dip in blood/brain wasabi levels (which of course causes the need for hot sauce or salsa). The taco meat completes the sashimi cycle, and you are satisfied.
posted by idiopath at 5:06 PM on February 29, 2012 [6 favorites]


Like all delicious foods, tacos excite the sushi receptors in the perifrontal cortex.

And how!
posted by cortex (staff) at 5:12 PM on February 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


the SCIENCE! Behind Why You Want To Throw Things At The Screen When You Read Bad Science Writing

Like all writing, Internet science writing is composed of orthography. According to orthography, the consonents create a tension, and the vowels release that tension. So in my comment above, when I use the word "delicious", you start out with a normal vowel/consonent tension/pleasure sequence. then, toward the end of the word, with "iou", you nearly jizz in your pants. Finally, with the letter "s" (the most consonenty of the consonents, except the notorious and rarely used "k"), I re-establish the sequence of pain and pleasure that makes up all words. Because Internet science writing has so many Latin and Greek derived terms, it is too corosive to the eye's ear and provokes hostility.
posted by idiopath at 5:14 PM on February 29, 2012 [4 favorites]


Also: rolling in the deep what, precisely?

Rolling Deep

That's where she got it from, but she somehow mangled it. I think Rolling In the Deep is a great turn of phrase, though -- it implies some deep, oceanic turbulence, something archaic and profound....
posted by empath at 9:54 PM on February 29, 2012


Wait, if it is about the hiphop phrase "rolling deep", then it must be about a threesome. Or more.

And this is how the science of linguistics and mathematics help us understand song lyrics.
posted by idiopath at 11:34 PM on February 29, 2012


Adele is a secret Muslim and or Mormon and or Hippie Free Love kinkster.
posted by idiopath at 11:45 PM on February 29, 2012


Sadly experience suggests that the nonsense will be repeated long after the rational rebuttal has been forgotten. Luckily in this case no-one will be able to remember or pronounce the word 'appoggiatura' (and even if they can they'll be too embarassed to bring it out in conversation), or we might be in at the birth of a zombie factoid on the scale of the eskimo snow vocabulary.
posted by Segundus at 1:43 AM on March 1, 2012


"Rolling in the Deep" always struck me as sort of the bastard child of "Rolling Deep" and "Laying in the Cut."

Doesn't really follow, meaning-wise, however.
posted by SpiffyRob at 5:55 AM on March 1, 2012


Another thoughtful response to speicus's article from pianist and teacher Michael Monroe.
posted by dfan at 4:09 PM on March 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


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