Why does some music make me, and presumably other people, cry?
I'm not talking about sentimental love songs like "Whiter Shade of Pale" or "You've Lost that Loving Feeling," songs that bring back memories of sweet relationships now long over. They can bring tears to my eyes, sure. But I'm talking here about a symphonic or operatic moment so sublime that — without anything personal about it — my eyes start to water.
It happened again just the other day. I'm not an opera expert, but I've been paying a lot of attention to it lately, as I reported an article about the Metropolitan Opera for the Wall Street Journal. So when The New York Times posted a recording of the "Ah! Mes Amis" aria sung by Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Flórez during the performance of "La Fille du Regiment" at the Met on April 21, I clicked on the link.
In it, Florez hits high C, which is about as high as men can reach, nine times. You hear the crowd roar, and you hear Florez do it all over again. I felt a lump in my throat and a tear in my eye. Maybe you've done the same when you've heard Pavarotti sing his trademark "Nessun Dorma" from "Turandot." I have, and I sometimes well up at similar musical moments that personally mean nothing and that are sung in a language I do not even comprehend.
But why? Is it because I am witnessing a pinnacle of human achievement — something most people can never dream of doing, let alone actually do? I think so. But I think there's something else, too; something sensuous in the voice that reaches in and touches something deeper inside of me. After all, I don't cry when an athlete breaks a record or a scientist makes a breakthrough.
Some psychologists, I've learned, call this "aesthetic crying." It's a phenomenon that no other species experiences — and maybe not all humans either. Like the crying that can result from a religious experience, this crying is said to be visceral, not learned. Knowing that — despite the sadness associated with crying — I feel rather lucky.