tl;dr
ALARM PATTERN:

when an artist suddenly features one of five auditory cues indicating danger, resulting in listener chills when combined effectively with a Structural Pattern

“Absolutely blood-curdling. Roger Daltrey’s scream gives me cold chills..”

Technique 1:

Acoustic “roughness”

Listen to examples

Technique 2:

Spectral non-linearities

Listen to examples

Technique 3:

High-range resonance

Listen to examples

Technique 4:

Arced contours

Listen to examples

Technique 5:

Concentrated “bursts”

Listen to examples

How It Works

When artists use the Alarm pattern, they directly active the amygdala, a brain region that helps us respond to threats. Screams, shrieks, sirens, squeals, and yelps all share a set of rare, distinct features. These features are difficult and require significant strain to produce, which helps alarm cues serve as honest signals of danger (avoiding the boy-who-cried-wolf problem). Humans (and animals) have evolved to link these sounds with danger. If we hear a cue that triggers our amygdala, our brain “fast tracks” this information and puts us on alert. When musicians feature alarm cues, they can trigger a fear response which when effectively integrated into the musical flow, can move listeners to the point of chills.

Alarm and Grief cues share many technical features and tend to appear together.

Top Acoustic Pattern pairing:

Top Structural Pattern pairing:

Genre that most uses pattern:

Aggression
Surprise
Film/Games

Technique 1: High pitch acoustic roughness

Acoustic roughness – rapid fluctuations in loudness we perceive as beating or rattling – is one of the main danger cues used by humans and animals. You know it when you hear it; it’s like a strobe light for sound. The amplitude modulations in rough sounds are fast (e.g. 30-150 Hz vs. 4 Hz for normal speech) and vary irregularly in rate and “height”. When artists suddenly introduce high-pitched rough sounds, this can often trigger a fear response and induce listener chills. Some of the ways artists implement this technique are:

— Single high-modulation rate tones (e.g. vocal screams, electronic tremolo effects, flutter tongue on flute) 

— Two interfering tones (e.g., minor second, tritone, major seventh as held chord or trill between notes)

— Many staggered sound sources (e.g. random, continuous plucked high notes across string section)

Genre

Pop/R&B
Hip Hop/Rap
Country/Folk
Alternative/Indie
Rock/Metal
Dance/Electronic
Film/Games
Classical/World

Song

claws
XXX
XXX
Feel To Follow
Helter Skelter
Jubel
End Titles (Predator 2)
Requiem – Dies Irae

Artist

Charli XCX
XXX
XXX
The Maccabees
The Beatles
Klingande
Alan Silvestri
Verdi

Frisson Reported by Listeners

1:39
5:00
0:48
2:54
2:59
1:39
3:24
0:07

Technique 2: High pitch spectral non-linearities

Spectral non-linearities – “noisy” distortions between and outside the natural harmonics of a sound source – are another danger cue used by humans and animals. Non-linearities like sidebands, warbles, broadband noise result from resonators being strained either above (Alarm) or below (Aggression) their natural range. When artists suddenly introduce high-pitched sounds with non-linearities, this can often trigger a fear response and induce listener chills. Some of the ways artists implement this technique are: 

— Strained vocals (e.g. screams in lead vocals, samples of real human or animal screams)

— Strained instruments (e.g. string “screeches” , “overblown” reeds, brass “squeals”, metallic percussion)

— Artificial distortion via production/recording techniques

Genre

Pop/R&B
Hip Hop/Rap
Country/Folk
Alternative/Indie
Rock/Metal
Dance/Electronic
Film/Games
Classical/World

Song

Gethsemane
The Hills
I Hope
Skyscrapers
Limousine
Puzzle
Lipstick to Void
Threnody to Hiroshima

Artist

Ted Neeley
The Weeknd
Gabby Barrett
OK Go
Brand New
Jeremy Zuckerman
Mica Levi
Penderecki

Frisson Reported by Listeners

2:26
0:42
2:13
2:49
1:49
1:33
3:27
9:08

Technique 3: High-range resonance

Very high-pitched, sharp notes that resonate in the upper mid-range or lower high-end parts of the frequency spectrum are another danger cue. These rare, whistle-like shrieks and chirps are especially piercing and difficult for listeners to ignore. When artists suddenly introduce very high-pitched sounds, this can often trigger a fear response and induce listener chills. Some of the ways artists implement this technique are: 

— Extended vocal techniques like whistle register in pop music and coloratura sopranos in classical music

— High notes on instruments with constricted mouthpieces (e.g., whistles, fipple flutes like the recorder)

— Samples of air or steam whistles (and similar electronic instruments)

Genre

Pop/R&B
Hip Hop/Rap
Country/Folk
Alternative/Indie
Rock/Metal
Dance/Electronic
Film/Games
Classical/World

Song

Don’t Call Me Up
Bird Machine
XXX
XXX
Nightrain (live)
Levels
De Ushuaia a La Quiaca
Queen of the Night

Artist

Mabel
DJ Snake, Alesia
Poco
Woodkid
Slash, Myles Kennedy
Avicii
Gustavo Santaolalla
Mozart

Frisson Reported by Listeners

2:34
1:36
X:XX
X:XX
2:44
2:40
2:42
1:07

Technique 4: Upward, gliding contours

Siren-like sounds with an ascending, arced contour are another indirect danger cue. They involve held, gliding notes that rise in pitch (and usually loudness) into a pronounced peak. This contour is especially attention-grabbing; researchers have consistently found that rising tones are associated with high arousal. When artists suddenly introduce these siren-like notes into a piece, it can often trigger a fear response and induce listener chills. Some of the ways artists implement this technique are: 

— Fast, high sirens with acoustic energy concentrated in the peak  (like a police siren)

— Slow, lower sirens with acoustic energy spend in the longer rise and fall (like an air raid siren)

Genre

Pop/R&B
Hip Hop/Rap
Country/Folk
Alternative/Indie
Rock/Metal
Dance/Electronic
Film/Games
Classical/World

Song

Focus
Boss B**ch
Sirens
How To Disappear Completely
Kashmir
Cavity
Sea Wall (Blade Runner 2049)
Afro Blue

Artist

Ariana Grande
Doja Cat
Lee Brice
Radiohead
Led Zeppelin
Hundred Waters
Hans Zimmer
John Coltrane

Frisson Reported by Listeners

2:44
1:44
1:11
5:07
4:18
2:14
3:15
4:50

Technique 5: Concentrated “bursts”

Upward shifts in pitch that concentrate acoustic energy in the 2.8-3.5 kHz range are another danger cue used by humans (and animals). These fast-attack “bursts” focus sound in the precise spectrum range that mirrors the resonant cavity of the human ear drum. By doing so, they make it easy for someone in distress to grab the attention of any nearby listeners. When artists feature these bursts they often trigger a fear response and induce listener chills. Some of the ways artists implement this technique are: 

— Singing and production techniques that bring out key formants (e.g., squillo singing, formant-shifter plugins)

— Certain high-brightness timbres (e.g., bagpipes, piccolo, bugle)

— Embellishment with leaps and phrasing (e.g., use burst after quiet, sparse section to make more jarring)

Genre

Pop/R&B
Hip Hop/Rap
Country/Folk
Alternative/Indie
Rock/Metal
Dance/Electronic
Film/Games
Classical/World

Song

Seasons of Love
XXX
X:XX
Snookered
Highway Tune
Edge
Imhotep (The Mummy)
Di Quella Pira

Artist

Tracie Thomas
XXX
X:XX
Dan Deacon
Greta Van Fleet
Rezz
Jerry Goldsmith
Pavarotti

Frisson Reported by Listeners

2:41
X:XX
X:XX
4:15
0:15
2:33
2:50
2:03

Listen to more examples in the Qbrio Library