Familiar-Unfamiliar

Create a momentary paradox that disorients listeners

“Hearing that theme come back in minor key on those horns is just flat out goosebump-y. Creepy, but gorgeous at the same time.”

Definition

The Familiar-Unfamiliar pattern is a set of techniques that artists use to create a certain type of musical paradox. Andy Hill, Grammy-winning producer and former head of music at Disney, coined the phrase “familiar-unfamiliar” in his book Scoring the ScreenThis pattern involves altering music a listener has heard before, while leaving just enough intact so that listeners can still recognize the new music as a version of the original (e.g. playing a popular jingle in a minor key, artificially pitching down lead vocals, etc.). The paradox is the music being simultaneously different and yet still recognizable. Many listeners use words like “uncanny”, “haunting”, “eerie”, “creepy” and “otherworldly” to describe the resulting sensation. The more intense the cognitive dissonance, the more likely audiences are to experience chills. 

Listen to examples 

Mechanism

The Familiar-Unfamiliar pattern takes advantage of our brain’s tendency to avoid uncertainty. Ambiguous situations, because they are open to multiple interpretations, require us to spend more energy preparing for each interpretation. If we suddenly encounter an ambiguous situation (in life or in music), our brain sometimes defensively panics and elicit a fear response to motivate us to escape the situation. Sounds that are ambiguous or “creepy” tend to work best for eliciting this anxious uncertainty with music. Recent findings from robotics (i.e. the “uncanny valley” effect in which ambiguous human-like robots with one prominent non-human feature like black eyes are much scarier than unambiguous robots with no human features) and psychology (i.e. that the essence of the concept of creepiness is unpredictability) back up this musical trend. 

Technique #1: Defamiliarize a melody 

The first Familiar-Unfamiliar pattern technique involves variations and covers. Clever variations on an established or “seeded” theme within one piece, and transformative covers of popular songs in different genres or styles, can create new meaning out of the same melodic material. When this occurs, listeners often experience the uncanny sensation of simultaneous difference and familiarity.

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

  • Subtle “internal” variations of a themewhere the artist leaves the instrumentation and overall contour of the theme intact, but adds notes, tweaks the rhythm, flips the mode, and/or alters the chords to make it novel and fresh
  • The return of a theme in a different “external” context, where the artist leaves the internal melody intact but surrounds it with drastically different orchestration, dynamics, and/or harmonic context to change the emotional effect
  • Radical covers that change the acoustic frisson patterns in a song: where the artist brings out a different frisson pattern with the same notes (e.g. taking a slow, Grief-heavy tune and turning it into a fast, Aggression-laden cover)

Don’t interpret this technique as a “hack” that automatically results in chills. Just flipping the mode of a melody from major to minor won’t work. 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 Familiar-Unfamiliar pattern.

Anecdote: In an episode of the film music podcast Settling the Score, the hosts highlight a particular instance of John Williams using this technique in the soundtrack to E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial: 

“The moment where the love theme re-emerges is sort of goosebump-y, because pretty much every other time we’ve heard this 5th that goes from the 3 to the 7 instead of from the 1 to the 5 it’s been in a standalone cue just devoted to that material. And here we are in this other harmonic space and it rises out of that. It kind of gives you chills, here’s the intimate music on a horn now filling out this orchestral space. It’s this effect in classical music where a theme transcends its old station and becomes something grand.”

Technique #2: Defamiliarize a harmony

The second Familiar-Unfamiliar pattern technique involves unusual chords structures and progressions. The key to this technique is undermining common harmonic tendencies in Western music (diatonic cadences, tertian harmonies, etc.) while maintaining consonant harmonic “motion”. 

Western listeners are highly accustomed to diatonic music primarily built around major and minor triads and cadential sequences.


. Passages that imply multiple tonal centers, or ambiguous sequences that “hide” the tonal center, are therefore highly attention-grabbing

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

  • Contrary half-step motion between consonant triads: root motion by major third (e.g. C-Ab, c-e), “hexatonic pole” transformations (e.g. C-ab, c-E), or “slide transformations (e.g. C-c#)
  • Non-conventional modes and scales: especially the maqam mode from traditional Arabic music, the Pelog scale in Indonesian gamelan music, the whole tone scale, or the Phrygian dominant mode
  • Harmonies based on intervals other than thirds: for example polyphonic folk traditions like Bulgarian diaphonic singing featuring parallel seconds, sevenths, and ninths, or harmonies based on augmented triads, fourths (quartal), or fifths (quintal)

Don’t interpret this technique as a “hack” that automatically results in chills. Just using the Phrygian dominant mode in a piece won’t work. 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 Familiar-Unfamiliar pattern.

AnecdoteGiven that in diatonic music contrary half-step motion usually occurs between consonant and dissonant triads, when it occurs between consonant triads it is highly disorienting. As theorist David French puts it: “the peculiar voice-leading relationship…makes the familiar consonance of the second triad seem strangely unfamiliar…the diatonically oriented mind is forced to reconcile the paradox of a consonant dissonance.”

Technique #3: Defamiliarize a tonality

The third Familiar-Unfamiliar pattern technique involves confusing the tonal center of a piece.  Western listeners are highly accustomed to diatonic music with harmonic motion around one, stable tonal center or clear modulations between tonal centers. Passages that imply multiple tonal centers, or ambiguous sequences that “hide” the tonal center, are therefore highly attention-grabbing.

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

  • Bi-tonality and melodic-harmonic “divorce”: two instruments unambiguously sounding in different keys, or when the harmony in a song sounds in one key but the melody hints at a different “phantom” key by omitting or shifting key scale degrees like the 3rd 
  • Chromatically-modulating cadential resolution: where instead of resolving from the dominant to the tonic in the same key, a cadence instead resolves to the tonic of a different, but chromatically related, key while still providing a sense of closure (e.g. V-III#, V-bIII, V-VII#, V-VI#, V-#IV, V-#I)
  • “Non-functional” progressions: where chords change and relate to each by a logic unrelated to traditional diatonic tension-and-release, for example modal sequences like Arvo Part’s famous tintinnabuli style or chromatic frameworks like “pan-triadicism” where chords change according to a set of mathematical rules and transformations independent of tonality

Don’t interpret this technique as a “hack” that automatically results in chills. Just featuring a chromatic mediant modulation won’t work. 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 Familiar-Unfamiliar pattern.

AnecdoteTheorist Frank Lehman has coined the term chromatically modulating cadential resolutions (CMCRs) and identifies how this technique is used frequently in Hollywood film music. He also links it explicitly to frisson: “CMCRs impart a sense of surprise and release in rapid succession, closely in line with the criteria for frisson…The shivers-inducing surprise is the product of violating deep structural tonal expectations…The element of release, on the other hand, arises from letting go of a tension-laden chord like a V7 and settling on a definitive new tonic, a tonic whose stability is unquestioned, regardless of its initial sense of foreignness.”

Technique #4: Defamiliarize a beat

The fourth Familiar-Unfamiliar pattern technique involves altering the rhythm, tempo, or meter to confuse the pulse of a piece. When music deviates from steady, symmetric beats to strange, off-beat, irregular grooves, this is 

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

  • Sudden rhythmic ambiguity: layering on a syncopated counter-rhythm against a straight rhythm, sounding a staggered echo of the original rhythm, or using techniques like rhythmic “gating” that gradually shifts a rhythm by adding notes and beats
  • Subtle meter changes between even and odd subdivisions: tempo changes with a 4:3 or 3:2  BPM ratio, which allows the beat to shift from being felt as straight quarter notes (e.g. 2/4, 4/4)  to a triplet quarter note pattern (e.g. 3/4, 6/8)
  • Ongoing shifts in rhythmic emphasis that prevent listeners from finding a steady beat: continuously varying the pace of chord changes, transitioning back and forth between symmetric and asymmetric meters, or inconsistently using syncopation 

Don’t interpret this technique as a “hack” that automatically results in chills. Just switching to a syncopated baseline won’t work. 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 Familiar-Unfamiliar pattern.

Anecdote: Radiohead’s “Pyramid Song” is a popular submission to our dataset of listener frisson moments. The song features one rhythm repeated over and over, but with continuous shifts in where the chords change that bring out different parts of the same rhythm. This, combined with the slow tempo and eerie timbres, creates a disorienting sensation that gives many listeners chills.

Technique #5: Defamiliarize a sound

The fifth Familiar-Unfamiliar pattern technique involves production tools and certain electronic instruments that alter frequency content in unusual ways. New technology enables artists to create artificial versions of sounds that never occur in nature. Given the environment in which our brain and ear’s timbre-recognition biology evolved, these “alien” sounds are highly attention-grabbing.

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

  • Production techniques that alter familiar timbres, for example “chopped and screwed” editing that pitches a timbre up or down, vocader & auto-tune applied to lead vocals, playing recordings radically slower (e.g. 800% slower), at a lower RPM (e.g. 45rpm record at 33rpm), or bypassing conventional melody entirely (e.g ambient “chill-out” EDM and new age music that emphasize tone, atmosphere, and reflective listening over directional melodic lines)
  • Sounds with “unnatural” frequency content and oscillation: certain modern electronic instruments (theramin, ondes Martenot, Hammond organ) and atypical combinations of folk and modern instruments with different amounts of harmonic vs. inharmonic overtones (e.g erhu in a tropical house song, Hardanger fiddle in a classical piece, etc.)
  • Sudden texture inversions: for example imitative polyphonic forms like canons and fugues where a lead line suddenly becomes a supporting line or vice versa

Don’t interpret this technique as a “hack” that automatically results in chills. Just throwing a theremin into a piece won’t work. 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 Familiar-Unfamiliar pattern.

AnecdoteA recent Apple commercial demonstrates this effect in an audio-visual context. It combines grainy, sparse, “old”-sounding music (Daniel Johnston’s “Story of an Artist”) with sleek, fast-cut images of the artists of today using new Apple technology. This creative choice echoes an ancient-modern theme of tying today’s artists to the legacy of artists through the centuries.

Examples of Technique 1: Variations and Covers

Genre

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

Song

All I Want For Christmas Is You
Halo
Smells Like Teen Spirit
Hurt
Survivor
Adagio for Strings
Goldberg Variation #1 (on Aria)
Tryouts (Rudy)
Once Upon A Dream (Maleficent)
Final Trailer – The Rise of Skywalker

Artist

Chase Holfelder (Mariah Carey)
LP (Beyonce)
J.S. Ondara (Nirvana)
Johnny Cash (Nine Inch Nails)
2WEI (Destiny’s Child)
Tiesto (Barber)
Bach
Jerry Goldsmith
Lana Del Rey (Disney)
Disney

Frisson Moment Flagged By Listeners

1:57
1:45
1:25
0:12
0:57
1:25
0:00
3:52
0:19
1:28

Examples of Technique 2 - Harmonic defamiliarization

Genre

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

Song

Air
Found You
Something
Pilentze Pee
xxx
Happy Cycling
Prelude – Parsifal
Any Other Name (American Beauty)
Reawakening (Ghosts in the Shell)
The Apocalypse Song

Artist

Talking Heads
Django Django
The Beatles
Bulgarian State Choir
xxx
Boards of Canada
Wagner
Thomas Newman
Kenji Kawai
St. Vincent

Frisson Moment Flagged By Listeners

1:06
1:22
1:10
0:00
xxx
5:07
3:27
0:25
0:08
0:07

Examples of Technique 3 - Tonal defamiliarization

Genre

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

Song

Head Over Heels
Uninvited
Gimme Shelter
715 Creeks
Headlines
All Neon Like
El Cigarral
Main Title (To Kill A Mockingbird)
Main Title (House of Cards)
Life (Prometheus)

Artist

Tears for Fears
Alanis Morissette
The Rolling Stones
The Nor’Easters
Drake
Björk
Alberto Iglesias
Elmer Bernstein
Jeff Beal
Marc Streitenfeld

Frisson Moment Flagged By Listeners

0:04
0:15
1:04
2:28
0:00
1:50
1:01
0:21
0:50
0:44

Examples of Technique 4 - Rhythmic defamiliarization

Genre

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

Song

Solsbury Hill
Pyramid Song
Frame by Frame
Lateralus
Numbers On The Board
Strobe
Short Ride In a Fast Machine
Imhotep (The Mummy)
Tubular Bell
Lingus

Artist

Peter Gabriel
Radiohead
King Crimson
Tool
Pusha T
deadmau5
John Adams
Jerry Goldsmith
Mike Oldfield
Snarky Puppy

Frisson Moment Flagged By Listeners

0:58
0:00
4:44
5:36
0:05
5:32
0:14
0:31
1:38
8:15

Examples of Technique 5 - Sonic defamiliarization

Genre

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

Song

U Smile (800% slower)
Familiar
Aqueous Transmission
Jolene (at 33 rpm)
Close To You
Hide and Seek
Sleep
Lips to Void (Under the Skin)
Moon Walk (First Man)
The Rider of Rohan

Artist

Justin Beiber
Agnes Obel
Incubus
Dolly Parton
Frank Ocean
Imogen Heap
Eric Whitacre
Mica Levi
Justin Hurwitz
Howard Shore

Frisson Moment Flagged By Listeners

2:32
1:19
4:31
0:17
0:06
0:36
0:49
3:14
0:00
2:53

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