Almost no one (except French commenters) has heard of the word “frisson”. So what words do people use to describe the experience of getting the chills during music? Across the hundreds of thousands of listener submissions and user comments we have reviewed over the last two years, there is certainly a set of standard, go-to terminology among English-speakers: “goosebumps”, “chills”, “shivers”, “tingles”, “eargasm”, “lit”, “spine-tingling”, etc., often accompanied by hyperbole, profanity, and a healthy dose of emoji and exclamation mark usage.
Beyond these easy-to-spot words, however, we have noticed a set of more subtle, nuanced phrases that keep coming up when listeners talk about frisson. We use NLP tools to scrape and study online comments about songs that are submitted to our crowdsourced dataset. Within these comments, we have found some less obvious but equally robust markers of (English-speaking) listeners talking about frisson. One such marker is the phrase “hauntingly beautiful.” Sometimes the words are reversed (“beautifully haunting”) and sometimes synonyms are used (e.g. “terrifying” instead of “haunting”), but this contrasting phrase comes up again and again when commenters discuss frisson-inducing music:
“Omg this song brought tears to my eyes! So hauntingly beautiful!”
“The violin (edit: It’s cello. Sorry) solo is so hauntingly beautiful.”
“Reminds me of the Ghost In the Shell theme. Haunting yet beautiful.”
“In my opinion, the best song Coldplay have ever written. From Chris Martins Piano playing to his haunting yet beautiful voice to Bucklans, Guys,& Wills explosiveness of emotion on the last verse.”
“Hauntingly beautiful, the atmosphere in this one.”
“Lovely, just so hauntingly delicious is the music, so heartbreaking, the verses.”
“That transition into the final section. Haunting but even more brilliant.”
“Im seeing Sufjan in Boston Tonight…His John Wayne Gacy song is also quite beautiful…but quietly terrifying somehow.”
“Terrifying and beautiful, all of it.”
“I’ve never heard anything like this, the desolate lyrics and uplifting strings make for a very chilling effect.”
“Always makes me shiver this bit. Beautifully full of mystery and foreboding.”
“This song is perfectly placed on a border between melancholy and sheer happiness.”
“It’s the kind of song where the sorrow simply seeps through, yet the beauty gets stronger throughout the track. Remarkably depressing, but yet uplifting too.”
When I think about it, this phrase perfectly encapsulates the simultaneous, contradictory emotions of fear and subsequent pleasure involved in the frisson response. Indeed, it seems there is new research every year explaining why humans like to listen to scary music. And music creators are constantly, methodically discovering new ways to create sounds that frighten listeners. So it’s a good bet if there is a song with multiple comments that uses the phrase “hauntingly beautiful,” there will be some potent frisson-inducing passages in the piece.
Even more interesting, the phrase “hauntingly beautiful” appears to be used disproportionately to describe frisson moments involving the Grief pattern. Below are two popular submissions to our dataset that many listeners described as “hauntingly beautiful.” The first is Billie Holiday’s 1939 piece, “Strange Fruit”. The heavy lyrics, about lynchings of African-Americans by racists in the American South, are undoubtedly piercing and gut-wrenching; they can induce frisson in-and-of-themselves. But also notice the characteristic acoustic attributes of the Grief pattern: sudden pitch jumps and switching between vocal registers, and the long, non-linear swelling notes in the vocals and especially in the trumpet.
Sure enough, in the comments on the Youtube video, we saw users talking about frisson and using variants of the phrase “hauntingly beautiful”:
Another submission to our dataset that multiple commenters described as “hauntingly beautiful” is Sufjan Stevens’ song “John Wayne Gacy., Jr.” (Stevens was nominated this year for the Academy Award for Best Original Song). Like the Billie Holiday song, Stevens’ song has a disturbing subject matter (John Wayne Gacy, Jr. was a serial killer in the U.S. midwest in the 1970s) and the lyrics, in-and-of-themselves, can induce frisson. But note the similar use of the Grief pattern in the music (especially sudden switches to falsetto and long wailing notes):
The commenters on the Youtube video and in other outlets pointed to the falsetto, especially at 1:23, as particularly haunting and chills-inducing:
Notice the uncanny (and not coincidental) similarity between the falsetto jumps here and in the trumpet and vocals in the Billie Holiday song above.
An interesting study, but not a current focus for our team, would be to investigate the unique words and phrases listeners use to describe each of the eight frisson pattern. Our anecdotal observations suggest, for example, that commenters tend to use words like “epic” and “triumphant” to describe passages involving a Surround pattern. It may be the case that there are unique phrases listeners use to describe their subjective emotional experience of each of the eight patterns. Indeed, music cognition researchers have uncovered consistent words and phrases listeners use to describe various emotions induced by music.
It seems to me that these groupings of words/phrases are imperfect, but remarkably consistent, proxies listeners use to describe complex physiological reactions to music like frisson. The sheer frequency and consistency with which we saw the phrase “hauntingly beautiful” keep coming up over the last two years is a strong indicator to me that certain sounds and acoustic structures can reliably induce similar physiological and emotional experiences across listeners.
With this premise, our goal here at Qbrio is simple: to see if an AI can learn the acoustics that induce the frisson response and help music creators produce stirring works that listeners describe using phrases like “hauntingly beautiful.”