People can’t stop talking about Adele’s sweep of six Grammy Awards and her come-back performance after undergoing vocal surgery. Now everyone wants to know, how does she do it? 

The Wall Street Journal thought they found her secret recipe for success in a musical term called an appoggiatura 

Without starting a debate about the real definition, an appoggiatura is really just a composer’s abbreviation. If you’re reading an article on NASA you know that NASA stands for National Aeronautics and Space Administration. If you had to read National Aeronautics and Space Administration every time instead of NASA it would take you longer to read the article. Just like an abbreviation, the appoggiatura makes certain musical phrases easier to read. Even if you can’t read music, which example below looks like it would be easier to play?

It seems unlikely that this musical shortcut is the trick to producing a #1 selling record.

A writing professor once told me, if there’s no conflict, there’s no story. In a creative fiction class, we were challenged to think about our characters’ lives before the story begins. A catalyst, an incident, an accident, an experience, must spark the beginning of the story, otherwise there’s no reason to write. Similarly, there must be an element of tension and release in music.

Basic music composition typically involves a chord (two or more notes played simultaneously) sustained underneath a melody. At times the melody will include notes that are not part of the chord. This is called dissonance. When the melody returns to a note that is part of the chord, the dissonance is resolved. One study has found that the resolution of the dissonance frequently coincides with an emotional climax.

Here enters the appoggiatura. This musical ornament creates an opportunity for dissonance to occur, which is how the Wall Street Journal and NPR came to their conclusions that the appoggiatura creates the emotion, ultimately leading to a hit song.

But Dan Wilson, co-writer of “Someone Like You,” thinks that the appoggiatura is not solely responsible for an emotional song. “With Adele, we wrote this song that was about a desperately heartbreaking end of a relationship, and she was really, really feeling it at the time, and we were imaginatively creating. That walked her back through that experience. And when you and I listen to that song, we walk through her shoes through that heartbreaking experience.”
Music is a story. Like a novel without conflict, music without dissonance is flat and boring. Dissonance can happen with an appoggiatura, but it can also happen at other points in the melody. And even conflict alone cannot speak to our emotions. It is the characters, the situation, the words that evoke feelings and make connections. So sorry future songwriters, it looks like you’ll have to keep using a variety of techniques to make a #1 hit.

Posted on February 15, 2012
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