Ludwig Göransson, the composer for the recent Black Panther movie, famously went to Senegal and researched African music before writing the film’s soundtrack. Göransson met with Baaba Maal and other legendary African musicians and I think this significantly helped the music and the movie.

In an interview about the film, Göransson mentioned an instrument called the fula flute that he said made an immediate impact on him when he heard it in Senegal. When I watched the movie, I remember noticing the fula flute during the museum murder scene; I got chills a couple times when the music swelled during that sequence. Evidently, the fula flute gave lots of listeners frisson. We saw several Black Panther cues featuring the fula flute appear in our dataset of chills-inducing musical passages, in particular one from the song “Killmonger”.

An especially popular moment from “Killmonger” was at 1:22 in the video below:

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Here are some illustrative comments that listeners made on the Youtube video:

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People clearly responded to this moment in the cue and to the timbre of the fula flute in particular. Of course, there is more going on here than just the fula flute. There is a significant texture change with the string entrance and shift in the percussion that helps to call our attention to this transition moment. What stands out most to me about this passage is the interplay of two different frisson patterns: an Aggression pattern in the growling low-register strings entrance, immediately followed by an Alarm pattern with those piercing, staccato high-register notes on the fula flute.

This is a frisson pattern combination I’ve started to see again and again in our listener data. Two passages I enjoyed that similarly combined these two patterns are in The Weeknd’s “The Hills” and My Morning Jacket’s “Touch Me I’m Going to Scream”. In “The Hills”, The Weeknd reverses the order of the two frisson patterns and creates a powerful Alarm-Aggression sequence at 0:42-0:45 in the video below (he uses what sounds like an actual recording of a woman screaming right before the drop). In “Touch Me I’m Going to Scream”, My Morning Jacket uses an Aggression-Alarm sequence similar to Göransson’s move, with the fast guitar glissando from low to very-low register followed by the abrupt, wailing falsetto vocals at 4:53-4:55 in the video below.

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After studying the psychoacoustics of these two frisson patterns, it completely makes sense to me that artists have intuitively discovered that they work well together; Alarm and Aggression patterns both leverage a common set of acoustic features called non-linearities. These are technical acoustic features that result from a sound system being overblown or strained. Ethologist Daniel Blumstein studied alarm calls in animals and horror movies and pioneered the recent research on non-linearities (his Ted talk is worth a watch). Blumstein even partnered with film composers to do some experiments in which they systematically varied non-linearities during movie scenes and found that more non-linearities enhanced audiences’ subjective reports of fear and overall physiological arousal.

Another researcher, voice scientist Ingo Titze, has also explicitly drawn the connection between vocal alarm and aggression cues. As he described in an interview about his research on the topic, “[T]here are some similarities between a lion’s roar and a baby’s cry. Both have very ‘loose’ and ‘gel-like’ vocal folds that make irregular vibrations that create rough sounds (low-frequency in the cats, high-pitched in the babies) and draw our attention.” Without naming it as such, Titze is pointing to the role of non-linearities in our two frisson patterns. Humans and animals strain their vocal chords at the upper range (Alarm) or lower range (Aggression) to produce non-linearities.

What better way to trigger frisson that to hit listeners with non-linearities at both ends of the frequency range in quick succession? Composers and songwriters, of course, didn’t need any of this research. The above artists simply used their ear to figure out that these patterns work well together and create especially gripping moments. This affirms, yet again, my belief that one of the traits that distinguishes great music creators is their intuition for frisson.

But lets ask a broader question underlying songwriter intuition: what if there is an objective psychoacoustic basis that explains which combinations of the 9 frisson patterns maximize dopamine release and chills? What if we could figure out not just which combinations of patterns work best together, but if/how this varies across genres, and which techniques for creating each of the patterns mesh well with each other? My hypothesis is that there is at least a partial objective basis for all of this. We are already starting to see evidence for this in the pattern combination trends across genres in our Library. I say partial because I think the music we grow up with significantly shapes our tastes and leads us to expect certain combinations of frisson patterns. These legacy combinations in different musical cultures may not be universally optimal for maximizing frisson, but rather a result of idiosyncratic constraints on artists (e.g. what natural materials were nearby may have initially shaped what instruments became popular, etc). There is probably a mix of nature and nurture in determining which frisson patterns “work” best together.

I think it would be a huge win for music creators if we can uncover this partial psychoacoustic basis (if we are right and it exists). Consider, for a second, how many different permutations there are to choose from with 9 frisson patterns, at least 60 techniques for creating the patterns, and thousands of instruments and samples to use when implementing those techniques (the factorial multiplication on the 9 patterns alone is 362,880 different combinations!).

I’ve heard again and again from composers that the name of the game in the music industry, especially for production music, is deadlines, deadlines, deadlines. So imagine a future scenario in which you are composing a cue that is centered around a climax that is currently just pretty good. It’s 10pm, you’re fried, and you need to send the cue to your client at 9am the next morning. What if the qBrio AI could tell you, based on your song’s genre and current pattern usage, which other patterns you should consider laying on to increase your climax’s frisson score, which specific techniques might be best to achieve those other patterns, and then provide a menu of instruments and samples that appeared in songs that used a similar combination of frisson patterns?

Wouldn’t that help save time and fuel your creative process? It’s one of the new features our team is working on.

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