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 below     

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

Listen to examples below 

The first Alarm technique involves “noisy” distortions (sidebands, warbles, or chaotic broadband energy between and outside the normal harmonics of a sound source) that occur when a resonator is strained above its natural range. In chills-inducing passages, the most reliable ways we see artists pull this off are

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

  • Vocals: where talented singers achieve authentic, atonal screams that produce significant white noise (chaotic broadband energy), or when an artist includes a sample of a person screaming in real life 
  • Instruments: where musicians produce non-linearities by applying too much bow pressure close to the bridge on string instruments (“screeches”, esp. on violins), by “overblowing” reed instruments and causing the pitch to jump an octave (esp. clarinets, flutes and piccolos), by causing “squeals” on brass instruments (esp. trumpets), and by featuring certain metallic percussion instruments that resonate at inharmonic overtones (esp. waterphone, anvil, cymbals, and gongs)
  • Production and samples: where an artist produces non-linearities by adding distortion to electronic instruments at high pitch (esp. guitars and pads), creates dissonant guitar-amplifier feedback, or features of samples of animal distress calls

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 this technique.

Technique #2: High pitch with rapid amplitude modulation 

Listen to examples below 

The second Alarm technique involves high-pitch sounds with a frequency feature called acoustic “roughness” (rapid fluctuations in loudness, 30-150Hz vs. 4 Hz for normal speech) that we perceive as beating or rattling. In chills-inducing passages, the most reliable ways we see artists pull this off are:

  • Single high-roughness tones: where an artist features a timbre with an especially high modulation rate, including tonal screams in lead vocals, electronic tremolo effects on guitar, organ, or pads, flutter tongue on wind and brass instruments, tremolo bowing on string instruments, or percussion instruments like the ratchet 
  • Two interfering tones: where an artist features two simultaneous tones a minors second, tritone, or major seventh apart that produce an irregular “beating” effect, typically sounded in the same octave as held chords or rapid trills and embellished with doubling and reverb so the tones interfere as much as possible
  • Many staggered sound sources: where an artist features one section in which each player sounds high-pitched notes randomly and independently (esp. plucked high notes on strings or wordless chorus), resulting in an overall chaotic and irregular 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 this technique.

Technique #3: Whistles and whistle register

Listen to examples below                                                                                                               

The third Alarm technique involves whistle-like sounds with high, pure pitch and concentrated energy in upper frequencies. In chills-inducing passages, the most reliable ways we see artists pull off this technique are:

  • Vocals: where an artist uses the whistle register above falsetto, typically achieved by female pop singers and coloratura classical sopranos and sounded during quiet, low-energy passages when the contrast of the sudden high note is as jarring as possible for listeners
  • Instruments: when an artist features high notes on fipple flutes, including 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
  • Production and samples: when an artist features recordings of air or steam whistles or creates whistle-like, electronic instruments, typically used sparingly 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 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 this technique.


Technique #4: Certain arcing pitch contours (“sirens”)

Listen to examples below                                                                                                               

The fourth Alarm technique involves certain gliding notes with an arced rise-and-fall contour and pronounced peak. In chills-inducing passages, the most reliable ways we see artists pull off this technique are:

  • Fast, high sirens: when an artist features a gliding note from medium to high pitch, with an abrupt entrance, loud dynamics, non-linear acceleration, and where the majority of the acoustic energy is concentrated in the peak rather than the rise or fall (think faster police sirens vs. slower air raid sirens)
  • Slow, low sirens: where an artist features a gliding note moving from low to medium pitch, with a legato entrance, muted dynamics, linear rise and fall, and where the majority of the acoustic energy is spent in the rise and fall rather than on the peak itself (think slower air raid sirens as opposed to faster police sirens)

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 this technique.

Technique #5: Certain upward, concentrated frequency shifts

Listen to examples below 

The fifth Aggression technique involves certain upward frequency shifts that concentrate acoustic energy in the 2.8-3.5 kHz range (the resonant cavity of the human ear drum). In chills-inducing passages, the most reliable ways we see artists pull this off are:

  • High-brightness timbres: when an artist features singers using squillo technique (where a vocalist brings out a formant right around 3,000 Hz), certain wind instruments like bagpipes, certain brass instruments like bugle or piccolo trumpet, or uses formant-shifter plugins, all on notes that have a high – but not too high – fundamental frequency given that singers tend to lose their formants at the top of their range
  • Embellishment with leaps and phrasing: where an artist introduces an upward frequency shift at the peak of a melodic line, the climax after a build-up, or an octave leap after a relatively quiet, sparse section 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 this technique.

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

Genre

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

Song

Don’t Call Me Up
Limousine
Won’t Get Fooled Again
Skyscraper
The Hills
Puzzle
Threnody To the Victims of Hiroshima
Lipstick to Void (Under the Skin)
Reborn (Hereditary)
A Night in Tunisia (live)

Artist

Mabel
Brand New
The Who
OK Go
The Weekend
Jeremy Zuckerman
Pendericki
Mica Levi
Colin Stetson
Arturo Sandoval

Frisson Moment Reported by Listeners

2:34
1:48
7:44
2:48
0:42
0:01
8:29
3:27
1:51
0:14

Examples of Technique 2 - High Pitch With Rapid Amplitude Modulation

Genre

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

Song

Claws
Feel to Follow
Helter Skelter
The First Day of Spring
And I Am Telling You I Am Not Going
Jubel
Dies irae – Requiem
End Titles (Predator 2)
Immigrant Song
Waitress (live)

Artist

Charli XCX
The Maccabees
The Beatles
Noah And The Whale
Jennifer Hudson
Klingande
Verdi
Alan Silvestri
Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross
Hop Along

Frisson Moment Reported by Listeners

1:39
2:54
2:58
6:11
2:34
1:39
0:07
3:24
1:59
1:48

Examples of Technique 3 - Whistles and Whistle Register

Genre

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

Song

Emotions
Tender Surrender
Nightrain (Live)
Introduction to the Snow
Memory Lane
Bird Machine
Queen of the Night (The Magic Flute)
Rainbow Voice (Baraka)
De Ushuaia a La Quiaca
Aztec Death Whistle demo

Artist

Mariah Carey
Steve Vai
Slash and Myles Kennedy
Miracle Music
Minnie Riperton
DJ Snake & Alessia
Mozart
Michael Stearns
Gustavo Santaolalla
xxx

Frisson Moment Reported by Listeners

2:47
3:24
2:44
0:25
1:57
1:36
1:07
5:00
2:42
0:09

Examples of Technique 4 - Certain Arcing Pitch Contours (Sirens)

Genre

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

Song

Focus
Cavity
Kashmir
Sirens
Boss B***h
Spectrum
Dystopia
Sea Wall (Blade Runner 2049)
Trace Awakens (Axiom Verge)
Otar the Foul

Artist

Ariana Grande
Hundred Waters
Led Zeppelin
Lee Brice
Doja Cat
Zedd & Matthew Koma
Hi-Finesse
Hans Zimmer & Benjamin Wallfisch
Thomas Happ
Epikus

Frisson Moment Reported by Listeners

2:44
2:14
4:18
1:11
1:44
4:54
0:04
3:15
0:33
0:24

Examples of Technique 5 - Certain Upward, Concentrated Frequency Shifts

Genre

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

Song

Seasons of Love
Snookered
Highway Tune
La Rebellion
Afro Blue
Edge
Di Quella Pira (Il Trovatore)
The Magic Tree (Star Wars)
Imhotep (The Mummy)
When We Were Young

Artist

Tracie Thomas
Dan Deacon
Greta Van Fleet
Joe Arroyo
John Coltrane
Rezz
Verdi (Pavarotti)
John Williams
Jerry Goldsmith
Fernando Daniel (Adele)

Frisson Moment Reported by Listeners

2:41
4:15
0:15
2:31
4:50
2:32
0:47
2:56
2:50
1:17

Listens to more examples in the Qbrio Library