Alarm

Mimic the acoustics of a sound source in physical distress

“Nothing gives me cold chills like Roger Daltrey’s scream. Absolutely blood-curdling.”

Definition

The Alarm pattern is a set of auditory cues that humans and animals use to communicate fear. Screams, shrieks, sirens, squeals, and yelps all share a set of distinct acoustic features. These features are difficult to produce, which helps alarm cues serve as honest signals of danger (avoiding the boy-who-cried-wolf problem). The more abruptly artists introduce alarm cues into their music, and the more performers intensify the unique features that distinguish them, the more likely we are to experience chills. 

Listen to examples

Mechanism

The Alarm pattern directly activates our amygdala (a brain region that helps us respond to threats). Alarm cues have two key features. First, they concentrate energy in the 3-5 kHz range. This mirrors the resonant cavity of our ear dream and is the part of the audio spectrum to which we are most sensitive. Sounds in this range are especially piercing; opera singers use a squillo technique that brings out a “singer’s formant” around 2.8-3.2 kHz, which helps them project over an orchestra but is also likely why some people say opera sounds like screaming. A second distinguishing feature of alarm cues is rapid amplitude modulation. Whereas normal speech modulates at a rate of 4-5 Hz/sec, screams modulate at 30-150 Hz/sec. This helps makes them especially attention-grabbing.

Technique #1: “Noisy” high-pitch sounds with spectral non-linearities

The first Alarm technique involves high-pitch sounds with frequency features called non-linearities. Non-linearities are distortions produced when a resonator is strained beyond its upper or lower range. They include sidebands, warbles, and broadband energy outside the normal harmonics of a sound source. You know non-linearities when you hear them; these are “noisy”, strained sounds that often induce frisson.

In chills-inducing passages, the most reliable ways we see artists pull off this technique are:

  • Distortion from straining a voice or instrument above its natural range: atonal screams by talented lead vocalists (producing significant “noise” or broadband energy), “screeching” high-pitch violins, overblown reed instruments like clarinets and piccolos, and “squeals” from overblowing brass instruments
  • Heavy artificial distortion created with electronic instruments and production techniques: typically high-pitch electric guitar, pads, and even guitar-amplifier feedback, all manipulated with various plug-ins to create highly unstable, irregular sounds that maximize non-linearities
  • Certain metallic percussion instruments that produce non-linearities: waterphone, anvil, cymbals, and gongs, which resonate at inharmonic overtones and create significant white noise when struck; typically sounded during exposed transition moments or climaxes when they are least expected and most jarring

Don’t interpret this technique as a “hack” that automatically results in chills. Just having a vocalist scream as high as they can won’t work. Whether listeners experience frisson depends on the preceding context and the onset, intensity, and variation of the non-linearities. Artistry is required in the set-up, follow-up, and execution. Consult the Frisson 101 page for tips on how other artists have used the Alarm pattern.

Anecdote: Biologist Daniel Blumstein, an expert on animal alarm signals, collaborated with film composers to study the effect of non-linearities in soundtracks. Blumstein found that non-linearities are more heavily used in film music than pop music and that boosting non-linearities intensified audience emotional response.

Technique #2: High pitch with rapid amplitude modulation 

The second Alarm technique involves high-pitch sounds with a frequency feature called acoustic “roughness”. Roughness is like a strobe light effect for sound. Rough sounds have unusually high amplitude modulation rates, or fluctuations in loudness (30-150 Hz vs. 4 Hz for normal speech), that perceive as beating or rattling (think of the buzzing of an alarm clock). At high frequencies, rough sounds often give listeners chills.

In chills-inducing passages, the most reliable ways we see artists pull off this technique are:

  • Single tones staggered to produce roughness: tonal screams in lead vocals, electronic tremolo effects applied to electric guitar, organ, or pads, flutter tongue on wind and brass instruments, tremolo bowing on string instruments, and certain percussion instruments like the ratchet 
  • Two dissonant tones sounded simultaneously to produce roughness: minors second, tritones, and major sevenths, usually sounded in the same octave as held chords or rapid trills, and embellished with doubling and reverb, so that the tones interfere with each other and produce a pronounced “beating” effect
  • Many impulse sound sources struck unevenly at high pitch: most frequently plucked high notes across a violin section, where the players don’t coordinate when they sound each note, resulting in an overall irregular, staggered sound that produces acoustic roughness

Don’t interpret this technique as a “hack” that automatically results in chills. Just featuring a loud ratchet entrance won’t work. Whether listeners experience frisson depends on the rate of modulation and non-linear variations in the amplitude “height” and pitch. Artistry is required in the set-up, follow-up, and execution. Consult the Frisson 101 page for tips on how other artists have used the Alarm pattern.

Anecdote: Among rock artists, Janis Joplin is a popular submission to our dataset of listener frisson moments. Her singular, high-roughness screams, especially in live performance like “Ball and Chain” at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, reliably give audiences chills even 50 years after the recording.

Technique #3: Certain arcing pitch contours (“sirens”)

The third Alarm technique involves certain gliding notes with a rise-and-fall contour. These sounds have a pronounced peak, making them highly attention-grabbing. Recent research has confirmed that arced contours are in fact a key way listeners distinguish real vs. fake screams. Artificial alarm sounds like ambulance sirens purposefully copy these pitch contours, as do musicians, making them especially effective for frisson.

In chills-inducing passages, the most reliable ways we see artists pull off this technique are:

  • Fast, higher sirens: moving from medium to high pitch, with fast-attack entrances, loud dynamics, non-linear acceleration into the peak, and where the majority of the acoustic energy is concentrated in the peak rather than during the rise or fall (think faster police sirens as opposed to slower air raid sirens)
  • Slow, lower sirens: moving from low to medium pitch, with legato entrances, muted dynamics, a linear rise and fall, and where the majority of the acoustic energy spent in the rise and fall rather than the peak itself (think slower air raid sirens as opposed to faster police sirens)
  • Vocals or voice-like electronic sounds: given that this technique mimics human and animal alarm calls, the most reliable timbre for pulling it off is human voice, followed by certain pads and samples of real-life sirens that effectively mimic and accentuate the voice-like features of these sounds

Don’t interpret this technique as a “hack” that automatically results in chills. Just inserting a recording of an ambulance siren randomly won’t work. Whether listeners experience frisson depends on the preceding context and the onset, slope, and intensity of the siren. Artistry is required in the set-up, follow-up, and execution. Consult the Frisson 101 page for tips on how other artists have used the Alarm pattern.

Anecdote: The trailer for the 2016 film Star Wars: Rogue One is a frequent submission to our dataset of listener frisson moments. The video features a fast, repeated siren throughout the final 20 seconds. Sure enough, one of top comments with over 3500 upvotes is: “That siren is bone-chilling.”

Technique #4: Whistles and whistle register

The fourth Alarm technique involves sounds with very high, pure pitch with concentrated acoustic energy in upper frequencies. Whistle-like sounds are rare in nature and difficult to produce. They typically require special techniques or artificial whistles, require significant energy to produce, and can only be sustained for short periods. So when we hear them, they are highly attention-grabbing and often frisson-inducing.

In chills-inducing passages, the most reliable ways we see artists pull off this technique are:

  • Whistle register: the vocal register that lies above falsetto and that only certain talented female pop singers and coloratura classical sopranos are able to reach, typically sounded during quiet, low-energy passages when the contrast of the sudden whistle note will be as jarring as possible for listeners
  • High notes on fipple flutes: tin whistles, recorders, Native American flutes, and other wind instruments with similar constricted mouthpiece, typically sounded with moderate dynamics to avoid overblowing the instrument and creating too shrill of a sound
  • Samples of air and steam whistles: recordings of blown whistles and whistle-like alarm sounds, used sparingly (typically in the latter parts of songs) to add intensity to a climax or end of a well-signaled cadence when listeners are distracted by the melodic and harmonic movement

Don’t interpret this technique as a “hack” that automatically results in chills. Just adding a recording of a steam whistle onto a climax won’t work. Whether listeners experience frisson depends on the preceding context and the onset, tuning, and purity of the whistle sound. Artistry is required in the set-up, follow-up, and execution. Consult the Frisson 101 page for tips on how other artists have used the Alarm pattern.

Anecdote: American R&B singer Minnie Riperton pioneered the whistle register in pop music. Listeners frequently submitted her 1979 single “Memory Lane” – which features a prominent 7-second held note in the upper whistle register – to our dataset of frisson moments.

Technique #5: Certain upward, concentrated frequency shifts

The fifth Alarm technique involves upward, concentrated frequency shifts. The resonant cavity of the human ear drum is 1-4kHz and especially 2.8-3.5kHz. Unanticipated high notes with concentrated resonance in these frequencies are especially piercing and attention-grabbing. The louder and more concentrated the attack of these note, the more likely listeners are to experience frisson.

In chills-inducing passages, the most reliable ways we see artists pull off this technique are:

  • Squillo: where opera singers accentuate a formant right around 3,000 Hz to achieve an especially bright, piercing sound that can project over the orchestra, typically achieved on notes that have high – but not too high – fundamental frequency given that singers tend to lose their formants at the top of their range
  • High notes on certain timbres like bag-pipes and trumpets: that can sounds with a similar resonance to squillo and achieve a similarly bright, piercing sound; usually embellished with holds at the peak of a melodic line or climax to draw listener attention to the frequency content of the sound
  • Embellishment with large leaps, orchestration, and dynamics: these upward frequency shifts are typically set up by an octave leap or a similarly large interval after a relatively quiet, sparse section, all to make the contrast of the high-pitch entrance as prominent and jarring as possible for listeners

Don’t interpret this technique as a “hack” that automatically results in chills. Just featuring a loud vocal entrance with squillo randomly won’t work. Whether listeners experience frisson depends on the preceding context and the attack and concentration of the frequency shift. Artistry is required in the set-up, follow-up, and execution. Consult the Frisson 101 page for tips on how other artists have used the Alarm pattern.

Anecdote: Opera climaxes featuring squillo are prominent in our dataset of listener frisson moments. One of the most popular moments is the climax to the famous “Nessun dorma” aria from the opera Turandot, which was also prominently featured in the 2015 film Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation.

Examples of Technique 1: High-Pitch Spectral Non-Linearities

Genre

Pop
Alternative
Rock
Country / Folk
Hip-hop / R&B
EDM
Classical
Film
Soundtracks
Other

Song

Skyscrapers
Limousine
Won’t Get Fooled Again
Cochise
Gimme Shelter vocals
Puzzle
Threnody To the Victims of Hiroshima
The Magic Tree (Star Wars)
Immigrant Song
Afro Blue (live)

Artist

Ok Go
Brand New
The Who
Audioslave
Merry Clayton
Jeremy Zuckerman
Pendericki
John Williams
Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross
John Coltrane

Listener Frisson Moment

2:48
1:48
7:44
2:57
2:33
0:00
8:29
2:56
1:59
4:49

Examples of Technique 2 - High Pitch With Rapid Amplitude Modulation

Genre

Pop
Alternative
Rock
Country / Folk
Hip-hop / R&B
EDM
Classical
Film
Soundtracks
Other

Song

Claws
Feel to Follow
Highway Tune
The First Day of Spring
And I Am Telling You I Am Not Going
Jubel
Di Quella Pira (Il Trovatore)
Reborn (Hereditary)
Gethsemane (Jesus Christ Superstar)
Waitress (live)

Artist

Charli XCX
The Maccabees
Greta Van Fleet
Noah And The Whale
Jennifer Hudson
Klingande
Pavarotti (Verdi)
Colin Stetson
Ted Neeley
Hop Along

Listener Frisson Moment

1:39
2:54
0:15
6:11
2:34
1:39
0:47
1:51
2:26
1:48

Examples of Technique 3 - Certain Arcing Pitch Contours (Sirens)

Genre

Pop
Alternative
Rock
Country / Folk
Hip-hop / R&B
EDM
Classical
Film
Soundtracks
Other

Song

Spectrum
How To Disappear Completeley
Kashmir
3005
Boss B***h
Cavity
Dystopia
Sea Wall (Blade Runner 2049)
Trace Awakens (Axiom Verge)
Otar the Foul

Artist

Zedd & Matthew Koma
Radiohead
Led Zeppelin
Childish Gambino
Doja Cat
Hundred Waters
Hi-Finesse
Hans Zimmer & Benjamin Wallfisch
Thomas Happ
Epikus

Listener Frisson Moment

4:53
5:03
4:18
1:22
1:44
2:14
0:04
3:15
0:33
0:24

Examples of Technique 4 - Whistles and Whistle Register

Genre

Pop
Alternative
Rock
Country / Folk
Hip-hop / R&B
EDM
Classical
Film
Soundtracks
Other

Song

Emotions
Tender Surrender
Nightrain (Live)
De Ushuaia a La Quiaca
The Hills
Bird Machine
Queen of the Night (The Magic Flute)
Rainbow Voice (Blade)
Seasons of Love (Rent)
A Night in Tunisia (live)

Artist

Mariah Carey
Steve Vai
Slash and Myles Kennedy
Gustavo Santaolalla
The Weekend
DJ Snake & Alessia
Mozart
David Hykes
Tracie Thomas
Arturo Sandoval

Listener Frisson Moment

2:47
3:24
2:43
2:42
0:42
1:36
1:06
5:00
2:41
0:16

Examples of Technique 5 - Certain Upward, Concentrated Frequency Shifts

Genre

Pop
Alternative
Rock
Country / Folk
Hip-hop / R&B
EDM
Classical
Film
Soundtracks
Other

Song

La Rebellion
Snookered
Helter Skelter
Amazing Grace
Get Up 10
Edge
Dies irae – Requiem
End Titles (Predator 2)
Imhotep (The Mummy)
Midsommar Trailer

Artist

Joe Arroyo
Dan Deacon
The Beatles
The Royal Scots Dragoon Guard
Cardi B
Rezz
Verdi
Alan Silvestri
Jerry Goldsmith
A24

Listener Frisson Moment

2:31
4:15
2:58
0:14
1:22
2:32
0:07
3:24
2:50
0:00

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