What do Adele and the Quran have in common?

19 02 2012

Earlier this week, Adele swept the Grammys and won all six of the categories she was nominated for – including the prestigious Album of the Year. Her songs and performances have touched millions around the world. While there are several theories for her success such as her voice or lyrics, the Wall Street Journal explored a scientific reason for why “Someone like You” in particular makes so many people cry. The article contends that a musical device called an “appoggiatura” is used to elicit emotion in the listener.

An appoggiatura is a type of ornamental note that clashes with the melody just enough to create a dissonant sound. “This generates tension in the listener,” said Martin Guhn, a psychologist at the University of British Columbia who co-wrote a 2007 study on the subject. “When the notes return to the anticipated melody, the tension resolves…”Chills often descend on listeners at these moments of resolution. When several appoggiaturas occur next to each other in a melody, it generates a cycle of tension and release. This provokes an even stronger reaction, and that is when the tears start to flow.

This phenomena, although studied scientifically recently, has been around for a very long time. Appoggiaturas were used extensively in Renaissance and early Baroque music. However, the origins may be traced as far back as the 7th century during the time of the Prophet Muhammad when he received revelation from God. Unlike other scriptures, the Quran is unique in that it has preserved not only every single word and letter of God but even the intonations as it was verbally revealed to the Messenger through the Archangel. This method of recitation is known as the science of Tajweed which is a set of rules that govern many of the “parameters of sound production such as duration, segment quality, and single-breath phrase” (Yeou). As Lesley Hazleton correctly explained in her TED Talk, the Quran is not just meant to be read but recited. Today millions of Muslims around the world learn to read and memorize the Quran by heart.

While the recitation of the Quran is certainly not considered to be a form of music, reciters have the creative freedom to ornament certain elements (art of Tajweed). Mohamed Yeou, professor of linguistics at the Chouaib Doukkali University, has studied the acoustics of the recitation of the Quran. He analyzed the recitation of six professional reciters from Egypt and Saudi Arabia and discovered compelling data – including the use of appoggiaturas.

One example is from a powerful set of verses from Surah Maun (Chapter 107), which is an uncompromising, unapologetic depiction of social corruption of pagan society at the time. God is pointing out those who drive away the orphans and and does not encourage feeding the poor. Are we not going to be accountable for our deeds? The surah ends with an appoggiatura on the word that it is titled by – “maun”.  In Arabic, this means a small kindness – one that is not going to make a difference to the person that is giving. An example might be a neighbor stopping by to borrow some salt. Are you going to be one to refuse “maun”? What about the homeless asking for some change? From the Arab pagan of the time to the present day listener, the Creator and Master of the Heavens and the Earth breaks on his/her moral conscious with each successive verse until that final note – “maun” sends chills down the spine and the mindful listener cannot help but to shed tears. The transformational power of the Quran can be seen in numerous documented cases in which the original Islamophobes covered their ears when they heard the verses because they could not deny the Truth and accepted Islam. Listen carefully to the following recitation of this surah by AbdurRahman Sudais.

For a more extensive, linguistic explanation of this chapter, I would highly recommend listening to the commentary by Nouman Ali Khan of the Bayyinah Institute. This is intended for a Muslim audience so feel free to comment to ask if there is any terminology or concepts that you are not familiar with.

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