Familiar-Unfamiliar

Create a momentary paradox that disorients listeners

 

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

A Familiar-Unfamiliar pattern is when you present a musical element that listeners have heard before (e.g. a previously established motif, a well-known idiom, a reinforced tonality, a set of timbres that usually go together, etc.) in an altered, strange way. This creates a paradoxical sensation of something being recognizable and different at the same time. The cognitive dissonance that results from this sensation can significantly enhance audience perception and prompt listeners to question preconceived boundaries in your music. The more abrupt and intense the cognitive dissonance, the more likely listeners are to experience frisson.

The Familiar-Unfamiliar pattern can trigger a frisson-inducing fear response because our brains strongly dislike ambiguity and uncertainty.

We all have a general preference to conserve energy. This trait is thought to have helped our evolutionary ancestors survive because it kept them prepared in case a threat appeared. Ambiguous situations, because they are open to multiple interpretations, require us to spend more energy preparing for each interpretation. Unpredictable situations require us to maintain a heightened, energy-consuming state of alert. If we suddenly encounter an ambiguous or unpredictable situation (in life or in music), our brain can sometimes defensively panic and elicit a fear response to motivate us to escape the (energy-consuming) situation as quickly as possible. 

Recent research confirms our general dislike of ambiguity and uncertainty. One study investigated what makes certain men appear “creepy” to women. The authors concluded that features or behavior that indicate unpredictability are at the heart of creepiness. In a study of robot design, investigators discovered that human-like robots with one ambiguous or atypical feature (e.g. black eyes) can create an “uncanny valley” that repulses people. Andy Hill, the Grammy-winning former vice president of music production at Disney, coined the phrase the “familiar-unfamiliar effect” to describe this technique of defamiliarizing the common place. Hill explains how the concept emerged from the surrealism and science fiction movements and links it explicitly to frisson in his excellent book on film music:

“Frisson arises from difference: slipping into a hot bath on a winter’s night, or feeling suddenly that there is another presence in the house when you thought you were alone. A familiar hand on our arm – a parent, friend, or longtime partner – will not raise goose-flesh, but the touch of a desirable stranger will cover our skin with bumps. And though frisson is associated at some primal level with fear or surprise, it is almost universally described as a pleasurable sensation. This is a paradox of sorts, one that I’ll refer to as the familiar-unfamiliar effect.”

Music theorists have started identifying the techniques that composers and performers use to evoke this sense of the uncanny in pop, classical, and film music.

Our data indicates than when you alter the musical elements of a familiar melody, but leave enough of the core theme in tact so that it is still recognizable, this can often evoke an uncanny sensation that moves listeners to frisson. The key to this method is creating new meaning out of the same melodic material, leaving audiences with a pleasant paradox of a the theme being both familiar and different at the same time.

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

  • Creating variations that significantly elaborate, or radically simplify, a melody (e.g. rhythmic diminution in lead line, or reducing a melody to its harmonic baseline)
  • Seeding a leitmotif in an intimate, restrained form then returning to it with expanded triumphant orchestration in a radically different harmonic context
  • Crafting transformative covers or flipping the mode of a piece to alter the emotional resonance of a melody

Don’t interpret this to mean that every time you suddenly arpeggiate a lead line or shift a theme from major to minor that listeners will get chills. Our data suggests that when using this technique, it helps to:

  • Placement: Ensure listeners have recently heard the original version of a melody, either by immediately following it with its variation, repeating it over the course of a longer song or film score, or using a well-known song from popular culture
  • Set-up: 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
  • 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: In an episode of the film score podcast Settling the Score, the hosts highlighted one application of this method by John Williams in the E.T. soundtrack as especially frisson-inducing: “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 data indicates that when you use “non-functional” harmonic movement where successive chords relate and refer to each other, but not to any common tonal center, this can often evoke an uncanny sensation that moves listeners to frisson. The key to this method is harmonic movement that has an internal logic, but a logic that is not the dominant-powered cadences or tension-release interplay of diatonic music.

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

  • ‘Horizontal” chromatic sequences such as oscillations between or cycles across triad where the type, regularity, and “distance” of the chromatic transformations constitutes the harmonic logic (called pan-triadicism or triadic post-tonality by theorists)
  • “Vertical” modal sequences such as Arvo Pärt’s tintinnabuli style where one voice arpeggiates a tonic triad and a second voice then gradually moves in step-wise diatonic motion around that triid, where the harmonic movement IS the melody
  • Harmonies beyond the common practice based on major/minor thirds, such as quartal and quintal harmonies or harmonies based on augmented triads

Don’t interpret this to mean these harmonic transformations are magic bullets that will always give listeners chills. Our data suggests that when using this technique, it helps to:

  • Placement: ….
  • Set-up: Use reduced orchestration to focus listener on the sonority of the harmonic movements
  • Follow-up: …
Anecdote: Film composer Hans Zimmer used a single chromatic 4-triad sequence across the Da Vinci Code movies. These sequences are often used to create otherwordly or spiritual ambiances. One way to think of these paradoxical harmonic motions that don;’t go anywhere (and often end up where they began) is that they are the auditory equivalent of mathematician Roger Penrose’s famous “Penrose stairs” optical illusion.

Our data indicates that when you use certain chromatic transformations involving the contrary motion of half-steps, this can often evoke an uncanny sensation that moves listeners to frisson. Given that in diatonic music, contrary half-step voice-leading usually occurs between consonant and dissonant triads, when it occurs between two consonant triads it can disorient listeners. As music theorist David Forrest 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.”

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

  • Root motion by major third between two major or minor triads (e.g. C-Ab, c-e)
  • “Hexatonic pole” transformations (e.g. C-ab, c-E)
  • “Slide” transformations between triads sharing a third (e.g. C-c#)

Don’t interpret this to mean that these transformations are magic bullets that will always give listeners chills. Our data suggests that when using this technique, it helps to:

  • Placement: Highlight these shifts by placing the 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, 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 (that create an overall disorienting sensation) with simple melodies, repetitive phrasing, and steady tempos in order to provide enough harmonic stability to allow for a positive listener appraisal response
Anecdote: One popular technique for drawing listener attention to these transformations is what Andy Hill calls “harmonic valving”, or repeatedly alternating between chromatically related triads. A famous example of this technique, and a popular submission to our dataset of listener frisson moments, are the famous, swelling, alternating triads on French horns that Don Davis used to represent the two realities depicted in the 1999 film the Matrix.

Our data indicates that when you make the tonal center of your music ambiguous, or simultaneously sound multiple tonal centers, this can often evoke an uncanny sensation that moves listeners to frisson. The key to this method is not to create atonal music with off-putting dissonance, but rather music that seems tonal but isn’t. Grammy-winner Any Hill describes this desired result as a “whimsical off-centerdness” that can throw listeners off balance. 

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

  • Bi-tonality or polytonality in which different voices unambiguously sound in different keys (often the contrast is between the lead and supporting lines)
  • Ambiguous tonal centers where the melody and harmony can be interpreted in different keys or as hinting at a different “phantom” key, often by shifting the 3rd or 4th scale degrees
  • Wandering tonality where the key center changes so quickly or subtly that listeners can never establish a stable tonal base

Don’t interpret this to mean that every time you create tonal ambiguity that listeners will get chills. Our data suggests that when using this technique, it helps to:

  • Placement: Sound the vocies implying different tonal centers on different timbres and in different registers to help soften the dissonance; it often works well to use reduced, chamber ensembles that mirror the off-centered tonal nature of the music, rather than full orchestras that tend to trigger diatonic expectations
  • Set-up: Use symmetric scales like the octatonic and hexatonic scales that lend themselves to ambiguity
  • Follow-up: Use steady tempos to prevent tonal shifts from being overly disruptive and provide enough rhythmic stability to create space for a positive listener appraisal response
Anecdote: This technique can sometimes be achieved with a single chord. Film composer Michael Giacchino, in an interview discussing his score for the popular Pixar movie Up, called out the ambiguous tonal nature of the FM7 chord (that contains an FM and CM triad). As Giacchino puts it, “Its not F, it’s not C, its almost both…what it has is the tinge of sadness to it, there is something about that chord that is very, uh, it kind of reaches back.”

Our data indicates that when you establish a tonal center in your music but make the mode ambiguous, this can often evoke an uncanny sensation that moves listeners to frisson. The key to this method is using melody and harmony to hint at and move betwee, but never truly confirm, a single mode. 

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

  • “Modal stretching” where an ambient drone that is modally ambiguous (e.g. A-E-G) is paired with a harmonic sequence that vacillates between modes (e.g. A minor and A major) but never truly confirms one
  • Sounding two modes simultaneously, often via a pedal point in one mode (e.g. A minor) and a melody in a parallel or relative mode (e.g. A major or C major)
  • Implying a “phantom scale”, or when a harmony sounds in one key but a melody implies or hints at a different key, typically by omitting or alternating between 3rds from different scales (e.g., E Dorian scale over E major tonic triad)

Don’t interpret this to mean that every time you create modal ambiguity listeners will get chills. Our data suggests that when using this technique, it helps to:

  • Placement: Use reduced orchestration (often solo piano) to orient audiences to a more ambient, textural form of listening rather than searching for diatonic movement or developemtn
  • Set-up: Use open triads and simple monophonic or homophonic textures to make the modal sounds and ambiguity conspicious
  • Follow-up: Feature repetitive, short melodic motives to provide space for a positive listener appraisal response to the ongoing modal ambiguity
Anecdote: Thomas Newman’s music for the films American Beauty and The Shawshank Redemption was a popular submission to our dataset of listener frisson moments. Newman coined the term “modal stretching” when discussing his music, stating in an interview, “I do a lot of modal stretching. I find I can really stretch modes if I have a drone harmony.” Newman used this ambient technique heavily in the passages submitted to our dataset, suggesting it is a highly effective way to move listeners to frisson.

Our data indicates that when you complicate diatonic cadences by modulating to a distant, chromatically-related key after the dominant instead of resolving to the expected tonic, this can often evoke an uncanny sensation that moves listeners to frisson. The key to this method, as theorist Frank Lehman describes it, is a paradox where the chromatic modulation “shatters local expectancies concerning diatonic resolution, while fulfilling arguably deeper, more satisfying expectations for the feeling of tonal and phrasal closure…resulting in the pure musical pleasure that comes from an expectation realized, but in an unexpected way.”

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

  • Modulating to a new tonic that is chromatically related to the expected tonic by a third (V-III# down minor third, V-bIII down major third, V-VII# up major third)
  • Modulating to a new tonic that is chromatically related to the expected tonic by a second or tritone (V-VI# up major second, V-#IV down minor second, V-#I up tritone)

Don’t interpret this to mean that every time you modulate at the end of a cadence listeners will get chills. Our data suggests that when using this technique, it helps to:

  • Placement: Shift the register, dynamics, and texture on the new tonic to make the modulation as surprising and avoid undermining the novelty of the new harmonic space by retaining any of the textural elements of the preceding phrase
  • Set-up: Extend the note length and/or repetition on the dominant chord, and sound the dominant and new tonic chords in root position V to root position I to make the shift conspicuous
  • Follow-up: Immediately begin new theme or restatement of a familiar theme after the modulation to re-assure listeners of the stability of the new tonic and increase the chance of a positive appraisal response
Anecdote: Theorist 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 data indicates that when you use unusual , asymmetric meters and rhythms that feel somehow off-kilter as compared to standard meters and rhythms that provide a steadier pulse, this can often evoke an uncanny sensation that moves listeners to frisson. The key to this method is using odd meters and rhythms that make it feel like something is missing or added on, but doing it consistently so that listeners can adjust and get in to the different feel.

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

  • Irregular, asymmetric meters (e.g. 11/8, 15/16, 7/4, etc.)
  • Rapidly alternating meters, often with skipped beats to increase the sensation of disorientation (e.g. alternating 5/8 and 7/8)
  • Certain instances of polymeters that result in staggered, echo effects (e.g. 13/8 against 7/8)

Don’t interpret this to mean that every time you use an unusual meter listeners will get chills. Our data suggests that when using this technique, 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 highlight 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 data indicates that when you combine instruments from different eras and genres with timbre palettes listeners are highly familiar with (e.g. 4-piece rock band, classical orchestra, spaghetti western music, etc.), this can often evoke an uncanny sensation that moves listeners to frisson. Former head of Disney music described this sensation as “what we might call the ancient-modern effect: creating something new by reaching back to the distant past.”

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

  • Combining acoustic and electronic sounds (e.g. saxaphone in tropical house songs)
  • Inserting folk instruments into modern genres (e.g. fiddle, pan flute, bag pipes, erhu in pop and rock music)
  • Pairing modern timbres with classical genres (e.g. electric guitar with orchestra)

Don’t interpret this to mean that arbitrarily inserting a bandoneon into a heavy metal song, for example, will automatically give listeners chills. Our data suggests that when using this technique, 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.

Our data indicates than when you subtly alter the timbres sounding each part in a musical texture without changing the fundamental structure of the texture itself, this can often evoke an uncanny sensation that moves listeners to frisson. The key to this method is using timbres and orchestration to make a familiar timbre slightly unfamiliar, but still recognizable.

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

  • Temporarily reversing the timbres sounding the lead vs. supporting lines in a homophonic texture, or maintaining the base line but switching the timbres sounding the lead line in a homophonic texture
  • Dropping out the lead line in one homophonic texture and establishing a previously supporting line as the lead line in a new texture
  • Canons, fugues and other imitative polyphonic textures in which the same lines are simultaneously heard as lead and supporting lines

Don’t interpret this to mean that every time you use a canon listeners will get chills. Our data suggests that when using this technique, it helps to:

  • Placement: Make these shifts as smooth as possible by placing them at natural transition points between sections or having the melodic lie lead into them
  • Set-up: Make these shifts as smooth as possible by placing them at natural transition points between sections or having the melodic line lead into them
  • Follow-up: Using relatively loud dynamics to focus listener attention and make the texture change conspicuous for listeners
Anecdote: Pachabel’s famous, if cliched, Canon in D is a frequent submission to our dataset of listener frisson moments. One of the distinguishing features of the piece is that it combines a canon form with a ground bass continuously sounding the common harmonic progression across the lines. This helps to create an ongoing sensation of familiarity and difference as the texture evolves.

Our data indicates that when you use audio manipulations and electronic instruments to create strange, artificial versions of familiar sounds of voices and instruments, this can often evoke an uncanny sensation that moves listeners to frisson. Critic Harold Shonberg described the odd sensation this method creates when he described the sound of the theramin as “a cello lost in a dense fog, crying because it does not know how to get home.”

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

  • Audio manipulations that enrich the texture of vocals or string instruments in odd ways by altering the pitch and tempo, including “chopped and screwed” editing, slowing down a recording dramatically (e.g. playing a song 800% slower), or playing records at slower RPMs (e.g. a 44rpm record played at 33rpm)
  • Vocaders, auto-tune, and related distortion techniques that make human voices sound strange and unnatural
  • Theramin, ondes-martenot, and other electronic instruments that create strange, unnatural sounds

Don’t interpret this to mean that any use of autotune will get chills. Our data suggests that when using this technique, it helps to:

  • Placement: Apply these methods to lyric-less vocals, voice-like timbres (e.g. cello, saxophone, etc.) or via electronic instruments that sound like the human voice
  • Set-up: Unevenly layer different takes of the same vocals or electronic instruments on top of each other to create a less perfect, more unnatural sound (e.g. panning takes to different sides, tweaking the gain and reverb unevenly, changing the octave of one take, etc.)
  • Follow-up: Use longer note lengths, slow tempos, and less complex melodies to focus listeners on the sonority of the audio manipulations and leave space for a positive listener appraisal response
Anecdote: Listeners regularly submit songs from Nicholas Britell’s Moonlight soundtrack to our dataset of frisson moments. In the score, Britell famously applied “chopped and screwed” editing techniques from Southern hip-hop to classical string instruments. This created a unique, haunting sound that was highly effective for audiences and likely contributed to the movie winning Best Picture in 2016.

Listen to thousands more example clips in our Frisson Database