Adele performs in Los Angeles during her North American tour last year. Adele performs in Los Angeles during her North American tour last year. Adele performs in Los Angeles during her North American tour last year. (Photo: Kevin Winter / Getty Images)

Why does an Adele song pull at your heartstrings?

American and Israeli music scientists teamed up on new research that studies the 'tension' of certain songs.

Scientist Elizabeth H. Margulis worked on the study. Scientist Elizabeth H. Margulis worked on the study.

When Adele sings the song "Someone Like You" at her concerts, the audience often breaks out into tears. Critics have called the tune "heart-wrenching," "spine tingling" and "desperately sad and utterly, utterly gorgeous." The bottom line: It's a song that emotionally moves its listeners.

A team of scientists from the U.S. and Israel are trying to figure out why. In a new study they just published, the researchers made a discovery about absolute pitch – namely that it's not as rare as people think. Previous thinking had been that only a few people – one in 10,000 – could access absolute pitch. Widely referred to as perfect pitch, it's the ability of a person to identify or re-create a particular musical note without the help of a reference tone.

A secondary finding of the new study points to the possibility that this cognitive capacity to track absolute pitch and key impacts the emotional experience of listening to music.

"There's an imprint of this absolute pitch representation we don't even know we have, but it's actually shaping these expressive dimensions of music, and how tense the music seems," said Elizabeth H. Margulis, the author of "On Repeat: How Music Plays the Mind" and one of the study's authors. "We're trying to understand, why does some music move us, and others not? Here, we're arguing that one tiny player in that big question is actually absolute pitch, and whether we're hearing pitches that are more common in the environment to which we're typically exposed, or whether we're hearing rare pitches or keys."

Margulis, of the University of Arkansas, and her colleagues – Zohar Eitan and Moshe Shay Ben-Haim, both of Tel Aviv University in Israel – have made a career out of studying the science of music. They examine such things as why we love repetition in music....

.... as well as why we can't get certain songs out of our heads.

Their research is part of a growing body of work being done these days. Studies have explored how listening to music helps you recover faster after a workout. Others have looked at whether putting inspiring music next to videos of killer sharks would make the animals less scary. Meanwhile, a group of Israeli entrepreneurs launched an app that tells you which music to listen to based on your heartbeat.

As for that tear-inducing Adele song, don't feel bad about putting it on repeat. Indeed, Margulis points out, listening to a song over and over again can have a positive effect on the brain. “Your brain can handle [the song] better because it knows what to predict about it [and] your brain understands it," she said, adding that repetition "is helping you embody the tune.” Which is all to say, if that song by Adele moves you, it's OK to crank up the volume and cry.

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