Familiar-Unfamiliar

Create a momentary paradox that disorients listeners

 

“What a creepy, gorgeous cover. By the second line I had chills.”  

The Familiar-Unfamiliar pattern is a set of techniques for presenting common or previously introduced musical elements in unfamiliar or strange ways. This paradox enhances our perception of the well-known elements; many listeners use the words “uncanny” or “otherworldly” to describe the resulting sensation. The more abruptly you introduce the Familiar-Unfamiliar pattern into your music, and the more you intensify the cognitive dissonance, the more likely audiences are to experience chills.

Note: Grammy-winning producer and former head of music at Disney, Andy Hill, coined the phrase “familiar-unfamiliar” to describe these frisson-inducing moments. Hill traces their origins to the 20th-century Russian formalist movement that spawned surrealism and science fiction. 

The Familiar-Unfamiliar pattern can trigger our fight-or-flight response by taking advantage of the brain’s tendency to avoid uncertainty.

To help us survive, our brain has a default preference to conserve energy. This trait is thought to have helped our evolutionary ancestors remain prepared in case a threat suddenly appeared. Ambiguous situations, because they are open to multiple interpretations, require us to spend more energy preparing for each interpretation. Unpredictable situations are even worse, forcing us to remain at a heightened, energy-consuming state of alert. If we suddenly encounter an ambiguous or unpredictable situation (in life or in music), our brain sometimes defensively panics and elicit a fear response to motivate us to escape the (energy-consuming) situation as quickly as possible.

Sounds that are ambiguous or “creepy” tend to work best for eliciting this sense of anxious uncertainty. Well-known findings from robotics (i.e. the “uncanny valley” effect in which ambiguous human-like robots with a 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) corroborate this musical trend. Theorists have recently started cataloguing the specific devices composers and performers use to evoke this sense of the uncanny.

Our listener data indicates that changing many components of a previously heard melody, while leaving just enough so that the tune is still recognizable, can often induce frisson. This method works by creating new meaning out of the same thematic material, leaving audiences with a pleasant paradox.

In chills-inducing passages, the most reliable techniques we see composers and performers using to achieve this method include:

  • Defamiliarize a melody by changing its internal components, for example through clever variations or innovative covers that alter the chords, add notes, change the rhythm, flip the mode and otherwise fundamentally transform the “feel” of a tune
  • Defamiliarize a melody by changing the context around it, for example via seeding a theme in a restrained, intimate arrangement and then dramatically returning to that theme with expanded orchestration in a different harmonic context
  • Defamiliarize the concept of melody, for example with approaches like ambient “chill-out” EDM and new age music that bypass conventional uses of melody to instead emphasize tone, atmosphere, and reflective listening

Don’t interpret these techniques as “hacks” that automatically give listeners chills. Our data suggests that when using this method, it helps to:

  • Ensure listeners have recently heard the original version of a melody, either by immediately following it with its variation, repeating it multiple times during a longer song or film score, or quoting a well-known song or jingle from popular culture
  • Make the appearance of the transformed theme surprising by preceding it with a cadence, mellow transition section, or other methods to prime listeners to expect something other than the re-appearance of the original theme
  • Play the new version of a melody in full, and at a steady tempo, to provide enough stability and space to encourage a positive listener appraisal response

Anecdote: In an episode of the film music podcast Settling the Score, the hosts highlighted one application of this method by John Williams 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.”

Our listener data indicates that certain deviations from conventional Western voice-leading and harmonic practices can often induce frisson. This method works by introducing “exotic” chords and progressions within a familiar structure of consonant, harmonic motion, leaving audiences with a pleasant paradox.

In chills-inducing passages, the most reliable techniques we see composers and performers using to achieve this method include:

  • Defamiliarize conventional voice-leading by featuring contrary half-step motion between consonant triads, for example via 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#)
  • Defamiliarize conventional scales, for example by featuring maqah modes from traditional Arabic music, the Pelog scale in Indonesian gamelan music, the whole tone scale, or the Phrygian dominant mode
  • Defamiliarize conventional harmonies based on thirds, for example via 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 to mean every chromatic mediant modulation will give listeners chills. Our data suggets that when using this method, it helps to:
 
  • Placement: Highlight these shifts by placing chords in different octaves, sounding them as triads in root position, and emphasizing them with dynamics, orchestration, and lyrics (often involving words denoting uncanny phenomena like drug use, transcendence, dreams, fantasy, etc.)
  • Set-up: Surround one-off uses of this type of harmonic motion with conventional diatonic progressions to make the chromaticism more jarring and provide enough harmonic stability after to allow for a positive listener appraisal response
  • Follow-up: Pair ongoing uses of these transformations with simple melodies, repetitive phrasing, and steady tempos to provide enough stability to allow for a positive listener appraisal response

Anecdote: Part and Bulgarian singing; given 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 

Our listener data indicates that certain deviations from conventional diatonic practices and expectations for resolution to the root of a scale can often induce frisson. This method works by undermining a stable tonal center while still maintaining a “logic” in which chords refer and relative to each other, leaving audiences with a pleasant paradox.

In chills-inducing passages, the most reliable techniques we see composers and performers using to achieve this method include:

  • Defamiliarize a tonal center, for example via melody-harmony “divorce” (where the harmony sounds in one key but the melody hints at a “phantom” key by omitting or shifting key scale degrees) or outright bi-tonality (where two instruments unambiguously sound in different keys), 
  • Defamiliarize dominant-powered cadences, for example via chromatically-modulating cadences where a diatonic cadence resolves to the tonic of a distant (but chromatically related) key that still provides a sense of closure (e.g. V-III#, V-bIII, V-VII#, V-VI#, V-#IV, V-#I)
  • Defamiliarize tonal resolution, for example by featuring “non-functional” modal sequences (e.g. Arvo Part’s seminal tintinnabuli style) or chromatic transformations (e.g. “pan-triadicism”) where chords “move” but without reference to a tonic or intended resolution
Don’t interpret these tactics as “hacks” that will automatically give listeners chills. Our data suggests that when using this method, it helps to:
 
  • Placement: Highlight these shifts by placing chords in different octaves, sounding them as triads in root position, and emphasizing them with dynamics, orchestration, and lyrics (often involving words denoting uncanny phenomena like drug use, transcendence, dreams, fantasy, etc.)
  • Set-up: Surround one-off uses of this type of harmonic motion with conventional diatonic progressions to make the chromaticism more jarring and provide enough harmonic stability after to allow for a positive listener appraisal response
  • Follow-up: Pair ongoing uses of these transformations with simple melodies, repetitive phrasing, and steady tempos to provide enough stability to allow for a positive listener appraisal response

AnecdoteTheorist Frank Lehman has coined the term chromatically modulating cadential resolution (CMCR) and identifies how this technique is used consistently in Hollywood film music. He also links CMCRs 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 a violating of deep structural tonal expectations…The element of release, on the other hand, arises from letting go of a tension-laden chord like V7 and settling on a definitive new tonic, a tonic whose stability is unquestioned, regardless of its initial sense of foreignness.”

Our listener data indicates that certain deviations from the steady beats and symmetric meters that characterize most Western music can often induce frisson. This method works by making the pulse of a piece feel off-balance, irregular, or constantly evolving, but still providing a pulse nonetheless, leaving audiences with a pleasant paradox.

In chills-inducing passages, the most reliable techniques we see composers and performers using to achieve this method include:

  • Defamiliarize a rhythm, for example by layering on a syncopated counter-rhythm, sounding a staggered echo of the original rhythm, or using a rhythmic “gating” technique that subtly shifts the original rhythm by slowly adding/shifting notes 
  • Defamiliarize a meter, for example by featuring tempo changes with a 4:3 or 3:2 BPM ratio, which then shifts the beat from being felt as straight quarter notes (e.g. 4/4) to a triplet quarter note pattern (e.g. 3/4) or vice versa 
  • Defamiliarize the concept of a steady musical pulse, for example by varying the pace of chord changes, using asymmetric meters, and inconsistently using syncopation, all with the purpose of constantly shifting rhythmic emphasis

Don’t interpret these tactics as “hacks” that will automatically give chills. Our data suggests that when using these techniques, it helps to:

  • Placement: Make the pace of harmonic changes inconsistent in order to continuously alter where listeners feel the pulse and accents during repetitions of the same rhythm
  • Set-up: Emphasize odd meters with odd modes/scales, and contrast them with vanilla 4/4 sections to highlights the oddness
  • Follow-up: Play the new version of a melody in full, and at a steady tempo, to provide enough stability and space to allow for a positive listener appraisal response

Anecdote: Radiohead’s “Pyramid Song” was a popular submission to our dataset of listener frisson moments. The song features one rhythm repeated over and over, but continuously shifts where the chords change in order to accent different parts of the rhythm. This, combined with the slow tempo and eerie timbres, creates a disorienting, haunting sensation that many listeners find highly effective. 

Our listener data indicates that certain unusual audio manipulations and timbre combinations often induce frisson. This method works by altering familiar voices, instruments, or timbre palettes (e.g. four-piece rock band) to such an extent that they sound “alien” but are nevertheless still recognizable, leaving audiences with a pleasant paradox. 

In chills-inducing passages, the most reliable techniques we see composers and performers using to achieve the method include:

  • Defamiliarize a timbre, for example by using certain production techniques (“chopped and screwed” editing, vocader & auto-tune, playing a recording 800% slower) or electronic instruments with unusual frequency content (e.g. theramin, ondes Martenot, Hammond organ)
  • Defamiliarize a texture, for example by inverting the lines sounding the lead vs. accompaniment (especially imitative polyphonic forms like fugues and canons)
  • Defamiliarize a timbre palette, for example by inserting folk instruments into modern genres (e.g. erhu in tropical house song), or modern instruments into classical genres (e.g. electronic guitar paired with orchestra, etc.)

Don’t interpret these techniques as “hacks” that automatically give listeners chills. Our data suggest that when using this method, it helps to:

  • Placement: Either introduce atypical timbres in an exposed, reduced section where the rest of the palette drops out, or layer the atypical and expected timbres on top of each other to create a more disorienting sensation and increase the chances of a fear response
  • Set-up: Introduce outside timbres with a significantly different balance of harmonic vs. more inharmonic overtones as compared with the rest of the instruments you are using in a piece
  • Follow-up: Use an atypical timbre combination in such a way that listeners can clearly interpret its expressive function, for example enhancing a climax or repeating a familiar theme, to increase the chances of a positive listener appraisal response and avoid having the new timbre sound forced or random

Anecdote: A recent Apple commercial demonstrates this effect in an audio-visual context. It combines grainy, sparse, “old” music (Daniel Johnston’s “Story of an Artist”) with sleek, fast-cut images of modern artists 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.erta

Technique 1 – Defamiliarize a melodic element

Genre

Song

Frisson Moment Flagged By Listeners

Link

Original Version

Link

Pop

All I Want for Christmas Is You

Chase Holfelder (Mariah Carey)

From 1:57

2:45

Alternative / Indie

Halo 

LP (Beyonce)

1:45

1:24

Rock / Metal

Smells Like Teen Spirit

J.S. Ondara (Nirvana)

From 1:25

1:06

Dance / Electronic

Adagio for Strings

Tiësto

From 1:25

Opening

Hip-hop / R&B

Survivor

2WEI (Destiny’s Child)

From 0:57

0:48

Country / Folk

Hurt

Johnny Cash (Nine Inch Nails)

From 0:12

From 0:25

Classical

Goldberg Variations – Var. 1

Bach

Opening

Opening

Film Music

Tryouts (Rudy)

Jerry Goldsmith

From 3:52

From 0:37

Soundtracks

Once Upon A Dream

Lana Del Rey (Disney)

From 0:18

From 0:19

Other

The Rise of Skywalker Trailer 

Disney

From 1:26

From 0:07

Technique 2 – Defamiliarize a harmonic element

Genre

Song

Frisson Moment Flagged By Listeners

Link

Pop

Air

Talking Heads

From 1:07 

Alternative / Indie

Found You

Django Django

From 1:22

Alternative / Indie

The Apocalypse Song

St. Vincent

Opening progression 

Rock / Metal

Something

The Beatles

1:10 

Dance / Electronic

All Neon Like

Björk

From 1:49 

Dance / Electronic

Happy Cycling

Boards of Canada

From 5:07

Classical

Parsifal: Prelude

Wagner

3:21

Film Music

Any Other Name (American Beauty)

Thomas Newman

From 0:25 

Soundtrack

Reawakening (Ghost in the Shell)

Kenji Kawai

From 0:08 

Other

Pilentze Pee

Bulgarian State Female Vocal Choir

From opening 

Technique 3 – Defamiliarize a tonal element

Genre

Song

Frisson Moment Flagged By Listeners

Link

Pop

Head Over Heels

Tears For Fears

From opening

Alternative / Indie

Uninvited

Alannis Morissette

From opening 

Rock / Metal

Gimme Shelter

Rolling Stones

From 1:04 

Hip-hop / R&B

Headlines

Drake

From opening 

Classical

Fratres

Avro Part

From opening

Film Music

The Axiom

Thomas Newman

0:39 

Soundtrack

Main Theme (House of Cards)

Jeff Beale

Into 0:50 

Other

Life (Prometheus)

Marc Streitenfeld

From 0:44 

Other

El Cigarral

Alberto Iglesias

From 1:01 

Other

Main Title (To Kill A Mockingbird)

Elmer Bernstein

From 0:21 

Technique 4 – Defamiliarize a rhythmic element

Genre

Song

Frisson Moment Flagged By Listeners

Link

Pop

Solsbury Hill

Peter Gabriel

From 0:58

Alternative / Indie

Pyramid Song

Radiohead

From opening

Rock / Metal

Frame by Frame

King Crimson

4:29-4:44

Rock / Metal

Lateralus 

Tool

From 5:36

Dance / Electronic

Strobe

deadmau5

From 5:32

Hip-Hop / R&B

Numbers On The Boards

Pusha T

From 0:05

Classical / Jazz

Short Ride In a Fast Machine

John Adams

From 0:19

Film Music

Imhotep (The Mummy)

Jerry Goldsmith

From 0:31

Soundtracks

Tubular Bells

Mike Oldfield

From 1:38

Other

Lingus

Snarky Puppy

From 4:23 

Technique 5 – Defamiliarize a sonic element

Genre

Song

Frisson Moment Flagged By Listeners

Link

Pop

U Smile (slowed 800%)

Justin Bieber

From 2:32

Alternative / Indie

Familiar

Agnes Obel

From 1:18 (pitched down vocals)

Rock / Metal

Aqueous Transmission

Incubus

From 4:31 (Shakuhachi flute in rock setting)

Dance / Electronic

Hide and Seek

Imogen Heap

From opening (vocader vocals)

Hip-Hop / R&B

Close to You

Frank Ocean

From 0:06 (chopped and screwed editing) 

Country / Folk

Jolene (at 33 RPM)

Dolly Parton

From 0:17 (pitched down vocals)

Classical

Symphony No. 5 – Mvt. 3

Beethoven

From 3:28 (imitative polyphony)

Film Music

Lips to Void (Under the Skin)

Mica Levi

From 3:14 (distorted strings)

Soundtrack

Moon Walk (First Man)

Justin Hurwitz

From opening (theremin in classical setting)

Other

The Riders of Rohan

Howard Shore

2:53 (Hardanger fiddle in classical setting)

Listens to thousands more examples in our Library