Viewpoint: How Adele’s broken-hearted ballads become blockbusters

In an article for the Guardian, Dr Kenneth Smith, a music theorist and analyst in the University’s Department of Music , is one of five experts who shares his insight on the success of Adele’s sad ballads:

“If we are to consider her single Hello, each step in the sequence of the song lets us feel the disappointment and despondence in Adele’s emotions.

“She makes an obvious nod to Lionel Richie, opening with a rising interval of a second (from B flat to C) as she sings “hello”.

“That interval stretches out into the melody of the song’s chorus, too, rising upwards into “from the other side” – not going into the depressing descent (to B flat) of “it’s me” as during the verse. But while Richie’s is a fantasy of a returning lover, Adele’s hello is a wild call into an abyss. At points she references the Mamas & Papas’ California Dreamin’, too.

“Both songs (and Richie’s, too, in fact) have slow, minor chords that repeat in cycles and create an atmosphere of lament. In the song’s verses, harmony and melody are subdued, and Adele’s only real chance to break through are her characteristic slides between pitches.

“The chord progression and its melody repeat almost endlessly as she replays events in her mind – which we see in the video – like the Freudian compulsion to repeat traumatic experiences in the hope of finding an escape from them.

“The chorus’s repeated chord progression is F sharp–A flat–E flat–D flat: a “static” sequence, that makes it seem as though time is standing still. The only escape comes when she jumps an octave in the chorus, into the straining register of her voice, and really calls out: “Hello from the other side.”

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