Updated February 18, 2012
I woke up this morning to this piece on NPR's On The Media examining Adele's song Someone Like You. The piece made two things abundantly clear. First, I am not alone in finding Adele's songs moving. Second, I do not know enough about musical performances to make statements like I did above.
It turns out that there is a science to musical performance and Dr. Daniel Levitin is doing the research. He has found that listeners want novelty, just not too much of it. He says, "If the music was completely surprising we would be disorientated. On the other extreme, if the music was completely predictable we'd grow bored with it and it would seem banal. And what the composer has do is find that balance and get it just right - the Goldilocks' Zone." This is accomplished both through writing the music and singing the music. An example of the latter is creating tension by singing slightly out of key but sliding to the correct note (appoggiatura).
Dr. Levitin explains how Adele does all of these things in her Grammy Award winning song. She starts with something simple and familiar. This is followed by several surprises: (1) a tempo change corresponding to the message of the lyrics; (2) an octave change (perhaps representing a change in perspective?); (3) using appoggiatura to suggest instability; and (4) a lower register meant to convey the emotion creeping to the surface. And host, Brooke Gladstone wraps it up saying, "It isn't just about the song. It's also about the performance."
Busted! Like many people who think they can distill teaching into a few "best-practices," I thought I could take two musical performances and identify what works and what doesn't. My efforts failed to take into account all that goes on in the writing of the song and the planning of the performance - even when it seems to be so simple. I hope I learned my lesson, but probably not. I am a sucker for a good teaching simile.