New research shows how songs can manipulate our feelings.

By Samantha Zabell
Updated November 04, 2015
Adele singing
Credit: John Marshall/AP Images

Have you been listening to Adele’s cathartic single, “Hello,” on repeat? Somehow it’s the perfect ballad to listen to after a bad day, or when you’re feeling a tad melodramatic. Or maybe you have a different theme song to cue up when you’re feeling more celebratory. As it turns out, certain melodies may actually make you feel happy or sad by following specific speech patterns we associate with each emotion.

Researchers from McMaster University in Canada suspected that European composers, including Frederic Chopin and Johann Sebastian Bach, used speech cues to make their pieces evoke more emotion. Happiness was induced by mimicking happy speech patterns—higher pitches and a fast pace. Sadness was the opposite, using lower tones and a slower pace.

To test their theory, the researchers analyzed a combined 72 preludes from Bach and Chopin. All of the pieces were chosen based on their significance and popularity. They identified patterns in the pieces that informed the emotional tone of the music.

“What we found was, I believe, new evidence that individual composers tend to use cues in their music paralleling the use of these cues in emotional speech,” lead researcher Michael Schutz said in a statement. Happy pieces were composed in major keys, as opposed to sadder pieces, which were in minor keys. The findings were recently published in the journal Frontiers of Psychology: Cognition.

So how does this research on classical music relate to the powerhouse ballad that had (practically) everyone on the Internet weeping?

“Although my study was on classical music, I suspect some of the same principles are at play [in Adele’s song],” Schutz said in an email. “From an acoustic perspective the song starts with a very haunting, ‘sparse’ sound that is low in pitch height and slow in attack rate. This sets up a rather melancholy mood, which she then changes up later in the song as the energy level picks up a bit.”