Grief

Mimic the acoustics of a sound source in emotional distress

 

“My god, did that haunting voice ever send chills down my spine.”

A Grief pattern is when you create sounds that mimic the vocalizations humans and animals produce when they experience emotional pain. The Grief pattern is similar to the Alarm pattern, but we use different sounds to convey loss as opposed to fear. Crying, sobbing, and wailing have consistent, distinctive auditory cues: rapid irregular trembling, arched gliding pitch contours, use of falsetto and whisper register, voice breaks, and pharyngeal voice. Musicians often have to make themselves feel the painful emotions of anguish and sorrow to achieve authentic grief sounds. The more abruptly you introduce grief cues into your music, and the more you intensify the acoustic properties that distinguish them, the more likely audiences are to experience chills.

There are two leading theories of why grief vocalizations, despite the fact that listeners have no real-life reason to feel grief, can trigger a frisson-inducing fear response. 

One theory asserts that Grief patterns makes us vicariously “feel” the pain conveyed by a performer. Hearing someone else intensely grieving, according to this theory, prompts us to imagine what it would be like if we lost a loved one and were in that much emotional pain ourselves. Through this empathizing process, we also become aware of our general emotional vulnerability. These dual forces of imagining the hypothetical loss of a social bond and realizing the power that social attachments have on us are frightening. This theory holds that together, these mechanisms can trigger a frisson-inducing fear response.

A second theory asserts that the Grief pattern triggers a part of our brain that evolved to encourage care-giving. Neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp’s theory holds that we have a “separation-distress brain system” that makes us feel momentary fear when we hear an infant or loved one in pain. The reason this brain system induces “chills” or a feeling of being cold, the theory goes, is to encourage us to physically go to and hold the person in distress. According to this theory, grief cues in music can trigger our separation-distress brain system and induce chills even if a singer is not an infant or family member.

Two common elements across grief vocalizations are instability and randomness. Given that we vocalize sorrow and anguish in order to attract the comfort of others, grief cues are thought to have purposefully evolved to make them as difficult as possible to ignore. The most difficult acoustic feature to habituate to, given that it literally has no predictable parameters, is randomness. As a result, the more non-linear a series of voice breaks are, the more asymmetrical a pitch glide, the more irregular a vibrato, the more urgency it conveys. It’s no wonder that one study of crying babies found that a key ingredient in infant cries is, in fact, unpredictability.

Our data indicates that when you feature unusually fast, non-linear vibrato, this can often induce frisson in listeners. This method is likely effective because it mimics crying acoustics. Researchers have confirmed that the more emotionally upset you are, the more rapidly and unpredictably your voice shakes. While many singers can achieve a pronounced steady vibrato, irregular grief-like vibrato is rare and difficult to achieve. This makes non-linear trembling – on vocals or instruments – especially effective for frisson.

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

  • Especially rapid and non-linear vocal vibrato by talented lead singers (e.g., Freddy Mercury, Dolly Parton, Edith Piaf, etc.)
  • Irregular vibrato on voice-like instruments (e.g., cello, saxophone, violin, oboe)
  • Random rhythmic stuttering

Don’t interpret this to mean that any vocal vibrato will automatically give listeners chills. Our data suggests that when using this technique, it helps to:

  • Feature these vocalisms at the beginning of songs or start of new section to make them especially conspicuous and jarring for listeners
  • Surround these vocalisms with sparse arrangements (e.g., solo vocals or only piano accompaniment) to prevent non-acoustic distractions
  • Sustain and repeat the vibrato over multiple, long notes to re-assure listeners the quivering is intentional and create space for a positive listener appraisal response

Our data indicates that when you feature long notes with asymmetric, sweeping pitch and volume contours – either a fast, upward glide in pitch and volume followed by a long, slow fall, or vice versa – this can often induce frisson in listeners. Researchers have confirmed that grief vocalizations exhibit non-linear gliding (most often descending) pitch contours. This is commonly referred to as wailing or howling. Given that most Western music proceeds in step-wise fashion through notes at a relatively consistent tempo, prolonged asymmetric glides are unusual and attention-grabbing. This makes wailing especially effective for frisson.

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

  • Exposed arched, gliding notes on lead vocals
  • Glides on voice-like instruments, especially electric guitar or cello
  • Lament traditions (e.g., Georgian Aramaic chants, Portuguese fado)

Don’t interpret this to mean that any large melodic leap will automatically give listeners chills. Our data suggests that when using this technique, it helps to:

  • Place glides at exposed points, either the very opening of a song or section or at the climax of a piece or phrase, to make them as conspicuous as possible
  • Surround glides with ambient, heavy reverb timbres/doubling singers
  • Surround glides with relatively quiet, slow-tempo, high-pitch passages that place listeners in a sad emotional context so that the glide can amplify the existing sentiments
  • Hold or repeat glides to re-assure listeners they are intentional and create space for a positive listener appraisal response

Our data indicates that when you feature quiet, very high frequency notes in upper registers beyond a vocalist or instrument’s “normal” or comfortable range, and sound them with audible inhalations (e.g. gasps) or a thin “airy” sound, this can often induce frisson in listeners. Researchers have confirmed that high pitch and prominent inhaling or exhaling are distinguishing features of human and animal grief vocalizations. Given that the majority of sounds are concentrated in the modal register for singers or the natural timbre for instruments, sudden switching to upper vocal registers or artificial harmonics is unusual and attention-grabbing. This makes quiet, airy, high pitch especially effective for frisson.

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

  • Falsetto register, especially by male vocalists (e.g., Sigur Rós, Radiohead, Muse)
  • Whistle register, usually by female vocalists (e.g., Mariah Carey, Minnie Riperton, etc.)
  • Very high notes on voice-like timbres (e.g. violin, guitar, etc.)

Don’t interpret this to mean that any large melodic leap will automatically give listeners chills. Our data suggests that when using this technique, it helps to:

  • Place these shifts to upper registers in relatively quiet, slow-tempo, high-pitch passages that have already placed listeners in a sad emotional context
  • Surround these upper register notes with simple, ambient textures to focus listeners on the sound of the melody and avoid textural or harmonic distractions
  • Hold and/or repeat high notes in upper registers to re-assure listeners they are intentional and create space for a positive listener appraisal response

Our data indicates that when you feature unstable transitions, or “breaks”, between the modal and falsetto registers combined with disjunct melodic motion, this can often induce frisson in listeners. Researchers have confirmed that breaking voice is one of the most consistent, prominent characteristics of grief vocalizations. When you cry, a part of your throat called the pharynx tightens and creates unpredictable swings (i.e. breaks) between the vocal registers. This method differs from Method 3 above in that it focuses on the unstable sound of the transition between modal and falsetto voice, rather than fully transitioning to one or the other. The unpredictable nature of breaking voice makes it especially effective for frisson.

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

  • Exposed breaks in lead vocals
  • Yodeling and similar techniques that involve rapid alternations between vocal registers
  • Large, alternating intervals on voice-like instruments that mimic breaking voice

Don’t interpret this to mean that every voice break will automatically give listeners chills. Our data suggests that when using this technique, it helps to:

  • Place breaks at unexpected points in a melody, for example the beginning notes of a theme or right in the middle of a phrase, to make them as jarring as possible for listeners
  • Pair breaks with sparse orchestration (often solo vocals), simple textures, and slower tempos to focus listeners on the melodic movement and prevent non-melodic distractions
  • Repeat breaks, or leave a rest after a prominent break, to re-assure listeners the berak intentional and create space for a positive listener appraisal response

Anecdote: Voice breaks are especially common in American country music and European yodeling; in fact, one study found a strong correlation between voice breaks and grief-related lyrics in American country music.

Our data indicates that when singers lower their soft palate to produce a more “nasal” voice that passes more sound through the sinus and head cavity than the mouth, this can often induce frisson in listeners. You know pharyngeal voice when you hear it; it’s the sound you get if you hold the “ng” in the last part of a word like young or rung. Researchers have confirmed that pharyngeal voice is a distinguishing characteristic of grief vocalizations. When we cry, a part of our throat called the pharynx tightens and our tears mix with nasal mucus to make us congested, both of which combine to create a “nasal”, unstable sound referred to as pharyngeal voice. Given how unusual it is when we are not grieving, pharyngeal voice is especially effective for frisson.

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

  • Talented lead vocalists suddenly switching to pharyngeal voice for chest or head voice
  • Child singers, especially young male singers on the verge of puberty, whose maturing voices naturally exhibit a nasal-heavy sound
  • Lyrics emphasizing ng, m, n, and i sounds

Don’t interpret this to mean that any nasal-sounding vocals will automatically give listeners chills. Our data suggests that when using this technique, it helps to:

  • Pair pharyngeal voice with high pitch notes, often introducing the voice on large upward leaps or after a passage in falsetto, which naturally helps singers achieve the technique
  • Avoid sounds that are too nasal in quality and do not pass enough of the vocal resonance through the mouth, which can produce an annoying, unbalanced effect
  • Hold or repeat notes sounded with pharyngeal voice, to re-assure listeners the sound is intentional and create space for a positive listener appraisal response

Listen to thousands more example clips in our Frisson Database