The Art & Soul of the Appoggiatura

February 20, 2012

Last Sunday, British singer-songwriter Adele swept the Grammy awards, winning six Grammys and wowing the live and television audiences alike with her hit song, “Rolling in the Deep.”  She’s been at the top of the Billboard charts for almost 21 weeks, and her powerful return after a year recovering from vocal surgery has only strengthened her natural reputation for soulful ballads, emotional lyrics, and…appoggiatura?

Yes, you heard us correctly.  We just used the term “appoggiatura” in the same paragraph as “Adele,” and we’re not talking about Die Fledermaus.  But we weren’t the first- the Wall Street Journal pointed this out pre-Grammys in an article published on February 11, 2012.

According to the WSJ, an appoggiatura, in layman’s terms, is “a type of ornamental note that clashes with the melody just enough to create a dissonant sound,” which is then followed by the anticipated note or melody.  Although Adele’s hit “Rolling in the Deep” has dominated the airwaves lately, researchers have found that Adele’s ballad “Someone Like You” has had such an emotional effect on listeners that they start crying.  Similar to countless operatic composers, (i.e. Puccini’s “Vissi d’arte”), Adele often adds an appoggiatura-like motif at the end of her held notes before leading to a new harmony.  University of British Columbia psychologist Dr. Martin Guhn  points out that Adele sets up a restrained mood in “Someone Like You,” both musically and emotionally, so much so that when she deviates from what our ear expects, it causes our nervous system to go on “high alert,” whether through tears or chills.

Could it be that today’s popular music is getting closer to opera than we may realize?  In opera’s Golden Age, the vocal writing of both genres often overlapped, continuing through the Big Band era and into the Rat Pack (Sinatra singing La ci darem, anyone?)  Even the blind-audition concept of NBC’s The Voice encourages the judges to let the music itself  turn their swivel chairs around, whether through emotional context or riffing.  It’s true this Adele may not be able to sing “The Laughing Song” by Strauss, but at least she’s forcing non-opera listeners to be moved by the emotions of her voice.


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