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What songs make you cry, and why? My results did not fit the scientific explanation. Photo by Phil Houseal (Photo of the Phillips Sisters)



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What makes a grown man cry?

by Phil Houseal
March 21, 2012


Wes Bourland, a Fredericksburg High School graduate who is now writing musicals in New York, shared an article from the Wall Street Journal describing the formula for how a song makes you cry.

The article outlined specific musical patterns that are guaranteed to assemble a tearjerker. It cited research by a British psychologist that had participants identify 20 tear-inducing musical phrases. Fully 90% of them share a musical device called an “appoggiatura.”

This is an ornamental or “grace note” that creates a dissonant sound. I know them as “passing tones” - a note that doesn’t quite fit the melody, causing an unresolved chord. It creates a feeling of tension in the listener, that is not resolved until the melody moves back in line with the chord. It is hard to describe musical concepts with words, but try to imagine stopping the Star Spangled Banner one note before the last chord: “And the home of the...” It leaves you hanging. (Our music theory professor claimed that was how one composer’s wife got him out of bed in the morning. She would play a tune on the piano up to the last chord. The composer was compelled to get up, walk downstairs, and resolve the final chord.)

The article also mentioned dramatic changes in harmony, volume, and note ranges as keys to creating a crying song. I thought I would test this theory, so I posted the question on Facebook: What songs make you cry, and why?

Surprisingly, my results did not jibe with the article’s thesis.

The songs were as varied as the gospel standards In The Garden and Ave Maria to that hokey 60s hit Last Kiss. A couple of Beatles tunes made the list: Yesterday and In My Life.

Country fans liked The Dance by Garth Brooks and Haggard’s Today I Started Loving You Again. Luther Vandross got a callout, and Bonnie Raitt had two compositions make the “cry” list: I Can’t Make You Love Me and Feels Like Home. Show tunes had the desired effect, including Singing in the Rain and Til There Was You from The Music Man.

All could agree that the songs cited were bonafide tearjerkers (except maybe the Beach Boys’ Little Surfer Girl - sorry, Donna). But here’s the rub.

No one on Facebook mentioned “appoggiaturas” or “octave leaps.” The number one reason was that everyone associated a song with a pleasant or meaningful memory.

Fathers, funerals, and friends were just some of the reasons mentioned for the song that makes them cry. Some met their spouses while a certain song was playing. Others think of our soldiers or their homeland.

Every contributor flat out agreed the reason for the emotional attachment was “the association - the memories - the hormones.”

In a way this is reassuring. To read the article, one might assume you could write a winner of a song following a formula. Like back in the days of disco, when hit factories did exactly that, putting together songs with rhythms that echoed heartbeats.

But from my unscientific survey, I am reassured there is no formula for writing a hit song. The trick is to get it out there, and trust that your song will be playing when someone is getting married, divorced, or buried. Then that tune will be forever etched in the brain as a great song, guaranteed to gush the tears when replayed and replayed and replayed.