Grief

Mimic the acoustics of a sound source in emotional distress

“My god, did her trembling voice at the beginning send chills down my spine. Almost made me cry.”

Definition

The Grief pattern is a set of auditory cues that humans and animals produce when we experience loss. Crying, sobbing, wailing, and other anguished sounds all share a set of distinct acoustic features. These features are difficult to fake, which helps grief cues serve as honest signals of emotional pain and an effective way to attract comfort. The more abruptly artists introduce grief cues into their music, and the more performers intensify the unique features that distinguish them, the more likely we are to experience chills.

Listen to examples 

Mechanism

There are two theories of how the Grief pattern works. One theory is that grief cues make us vicariously “feel” the emotional pain of a performer. When we hear a grief cue in a song, the music makes us imagine what it would be like if we lost a loved one. Through this empathizing process, we feel a moment of fear followed by chills. A second theory is that grief cues trigger a part of our brain that evolved for infant care-giving. Neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp argues that we all have a “separation-distress” brain system. This system makes us feel momentary chills when we hear an infant crying. These cold chills, according to the theory, prompt us to physically go to and hold the infant in distress in order to warm up. Regardless of which theory is correct, musicians have to imagine and feel anguish to achieve authentic grief cues in their music.

Technique #1: Rapid, irregular vibrato

The first Grief technique involves sounds with rapid pitch oscillation. The more emotionally upset we become, the more rapidly and unpredictably our voice shakes. In music, however, audiences can quickly discern a fake, overdone vibrato from one that mimics grief-like trembling. Exceptional musicians can reliably find the right combination of changes in the rate and height of pitch oscillation to achieve the effect.

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

  • Fast, irregular vibrato on lead vocals or string instruments: where the rate and size of oscillations is abnormally high and irregular, most frequently achieved by talented vocalists (e.g. Freddie Mercury, Dolly Parton, Edith Piaf, Carlos Gardel, Maria Callas), violinists, and cellists
  • Certain high-oscillation instruments: especially Hammond organ, MOOG synthesizers, Uelian pipes, and saxophone, all of which create artificially high and unusual pitch oscillations, typically sounded with extreme dynamics (either very loud or very soft) to draw listener attention to the oscillations
  • Placement during song opening or exposed transition moments: musicians feature grief-like vibrato when it will have the greatest impact on listeners, especially the opening note of a song, the first vocal entrance after a sparse intro, or transition moments where the ensemble drops out to highlight the vibrato

Don’t interpret this technique as a “hack” that automatically results in chills. Just having a lead singer use fast vibrato on a high note won’t work. Whether listeners experience frisson depends on the preceding context and the pitch, rate, and height of pitch oscillations. 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 Grief pattern.

Anecdote: Pop standards from the 50s and 60s featured this technique and are frequent submissions to our dataset of listener frisson moments. Prominent examples include Tommy James’ “Crimson and Clover” (US), Carlos Gardel’s “Mi Buenos Aires Querido” (Argentina), and Edith Piaf’s “Non, je ne regrette rien” (France).

Technique #2: Voice “breaks”

The second Grief technique involves uncontrolled transitions, or “breaks”, between the modal and falsetto vocal registers. When we cry, a part of our throat called the pharynx tightens, resulting in unpredictable swings into and out of falsetto. Researchers have confirmed that breaking voice is one of the most consistent features of human grief vocalizations. And musicians frequently mimic breaking voice for effect.

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

  • Prominent breaks in lead vocals: talented singers achieving authentic, prominent breaks during exposed points in songs, often right before the end of a well-signaled cadence when they are least expected, especially popular in American country music
  • Instruments mimicking breaking voice with disjunct motion: typically alternating octaves or other large, abrupt swings in pitch, on muted string instruments or synths with smooth legato onset of the notes, mimicking the disjunct contour and change in pitch of vocal breaks
  • Yodeling and other extended vocal techniques: well-trained singers performing extended sequences with multiple transitions between chest voice and head voice to draw listener attention to the breaks, typically a cappella or surrounded by sparse orchestration
Don’t interpret this technique as a “hack” that automatically results in chills. Just having a lead singer try to force a voice break during a climax won’t work. Whether listeners experience frisson depends on the preceding context and the distance, volume, and nature of the break. 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 Grief pattern.

Anecdote: Breaking voice is especially common in American country music. Frisson expert David Huron conducted a study that found a strong correlation between voice breaks and grief-related lyrics in country music. Many of the moments from Huron’s study also appeared in our dataset of listener frisson moments. 

Technique #3: Pharyngeal voice

The third Grief technique involves a nasal sound in lead vocals referred to as pharyngeal voice. When we cry, our pharynx tightens and our tears mix with nasal mucus. This results in an unstable sound that passes more air through the sinus and head cavity than the mouth. You know pharyngeal voice when you hear it. It’s the sound thats produced if you hold and exaggerate the “ng” in the last part of a word like young or rung.

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

  • Lead vocalists lowering their soft palette: sudden switching from chest voice to head voice and louder dynamics to draw listener attention to the pharyngeal sound, often at the high point of a phrase or end of a cadence when emotions are already heightened
  • Child singers: especially young male singers on the verge of puberty (whose transitioning voice naturally has a more nasal-heavy sound), frequently used in choral and film music and contrasted with older singers to make the pharyngeal sound as surprising and prominent as possible
  • Lyrics emphasizing ng, m, n, and i sounds: typically paired with long, loud notes after a sequence featuring shorter rhythmic values, to highlight and prolong the nasal sound of these letters and make it as attention-grabbing as possible to listeners
Don’t interpret this technique as a “hack” that automatically results in chills. Just having a leader singer try to use a more “nasal-y” voice won’t work. Whether listeners experience frisson depends on the preceding section and the delivery and authenticity of the pharyngeal sound. 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 Grief pattern.

Anecdote: English rock band Muse is a frequent submission to our dataset. Lead singer Matt Bellamy regularly features pharyngeal voice, especially during the climaxes of the band’s top hits “Uprising” and “Madness”. Not coincidentally, these climaxes are the two most submitted moments from Muse’s catalogue.

Technique #4: Gliding pitch contours (“wails”)

The fourth Grief technique involves certain prolonged, uneven sounds. When we sob with grief, we are often so wracked with emotion that we can’t maintain stable, pitched notes. We tend to produce long cries that have a fast rise and slow fall in both pitch and loudness (or, less frequently, a slow rise and fast fall). This is more commonly referred to as wailing. Musicians, especially vocalists, frequently mimic wailing for effect.

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

  • Long, single glide with a slow rise and faster fall: lasting several seconds with a gradual, accelerating swell in volume and pitch into a pronounced peak, typically featured on lead vocals at an exposed moments in a song with no or minimal accompaniment to focus listener attention
  • Quick, repeated glides with fast rise and slower fall: where each glide lasting 1-2 seconds and is repeated several times (mimicking a burst of cries that humans often experience when grieving intensely), typically on lead vocals or voice-like string instruments like cello and electric guitar
  • Certain progressions that mimic falling pitch contours: chord changes like I-iii and IV-iv where the fall in pitch and shift from major to minor echoes the features of wailing, typically repeated several times and sounded repeatedly at slow tempos and quiet dynamics to focus listener attention on the progression
Don’t interpret this technique as a “hack” that automatically results in chills. Just plugging in a I-iii-I-iii progression on cello won’t work. Whether listeners experience frisson depends on the preceding section and the pitch, angle, and acceleration rate of the glides. 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 Grief pattern.

Anecdote: One of the most consistent submissions to our dataset is Nina Simone’s cover of Strange Fruit by Billie Holliday (which has also been sampled by Kanye West and John Legend). Simone’s version builds up to a climax featuring a falling, heart-breaking note that lasts almost 10 seconds. “

Technique #5: Sudden Falsetto

The fifth Grief technique involves sudden shifts into the falsetto vocal register. When we cry outside music, our voice tends to naturally shift up into an unstable falsetto with a “thin”, airy sound. Musicians mimic this for effect, often featuring a dramatic shift to falsetto on the hook or climax. The key is to maximize contrast; the more lower-pitched and “heavy” the preceding section, the more surprising a falsetto entrance. 

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

  • Male lead singers dramatically shifting to falsetto: given that men tend to sing with a lower fundamental frequency in modal register, the contrast is larger and more jarring when a male vocalist jumps up into falsetto (e.g. Thom Yorke, Swae Lee, Matt Bellamy, Adam Levine, Sufjan Stevens, etc.)
  • High-pitch harmonics on certain string instruments: when musicians sound artificial harmonics near the top of the natural range of a violin or electric guitar, it can produce a a thin, airy sound similar to falsetto voice (which is achieved by stretching our vocal chords out and apart, precisely like a guitar strings) 
  • Increased note length and placement at exposed points in a melody: musicians typically make shifts to falsetto more dramatic by holding the first falsetto note (for a much longer length relative to the preceding section) and switching to falsetto at the high point of a phrase or start of a new section
Don’t interpret this technique as a “hack” that automatically results in chills. Just switching from chest voice to falsetto on the chorus won’t work. Whether listeners experience frisson depends on how different the preceding section is and certain other features of the falsetto sound. 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 Grief pattern.

Anecdote: Male falsetto singing is a prominent trend in our dataset of listener frisson moments. The Icelandic post-rock band Sigur Ros is especially popular. Lead singer Jonsi’s falsetto vocals have been featured in several movie soundtracks, including 127 Hours and all the How To Train Your Dragon films.

Examples of Technique 1: Rapid irregular vibrato

Genre

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

Song

Rise Up
Hope There’s Someone
Ball and Chain (live)
Leaning On the Everlasting Arm
Pyscho
RAMelia (Tribute to Amelia)
Un bel di vedremo (Madama Butterfly)
Gortoz a Ran (Black Hawk Down)
Memory (Cats)
Quizas, quizas, quizas

Artist

Andra Day
Antony and the Johnsons
Janis Joplin
Iris Dement
Post Malone
RAM & Susana
Maria Callas (Puccini)
Denez Prigent & Hans Zimmer
Jennifer Hudson
Gaby Moreno

Listener Frisson Moment

0:35
0:27
4:42
0:00
1:08
2:34
0:00
0:59
3:11
2:12

Examples of Technique 2 - Gliding pitch contours ("wails")

Genre

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

Song

Jealous
Self Control
Maggot Brain
Either Way
Strange Fruit
A Way To Say Goodbye
Psalm 50
Message For The Queen (300)
Shadowland (The Lion King Musical)
El Triste (en vivo)

Artist

Josh Daniels
Frank Ocean
Funkadelic
Chris Stapleton
Nina Simone
Seven Lions
Seraphim Bit-Kharibi
Tyler Bates
Heather Headley & Ensemble
Jose Jose

Listener Frisson Moment

1:07
2:31
7:26
1:00
2:28
3:13
2:49
1:39
3:47
2:59

Examples of Technique 3 - Sudden Falsetto

Genre

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

Song

Angel
John Wayne Gacy Jr.
Festival
Drinkin’ Me Lonely
Honesty
We’re All We Need
Caprice No. 24
The Bridge of Khazad-dum
Ezio’s Family (Assassin’s Creed 2)
The Blower’s Daughter

Artist

Sarah McLachlan
Sufjan Stevens
Sigur Ros
Chris Young
Pink Sweat$
Above & Beyond
Heifetz (Paganini)
Howard Shore
Jesper Kyd
Damien Rice

Listener Frisson Moment

1:07
1:22
0:52
2:51
0:58
0:28-0:43
5:38
5:13
2:48-2:52
1:05

Examples of Technique 4 - Voice "breaks"

Genre

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

Song

Dreams
The Joke (live at the Grammys)
Purple Rain
Crazy
u
Not Coming Down
Vesti la giubba – Pagliacci
Theme from Schindler’s List
Lonesome Valley
Daniel Jojk

Artist

The Cranberries
Brandi Carlile
Prince
Patsy Cline
Kendrick Lamar
Ferry Corsten
Pavarotti (Leoncavallo)
John Williams
The Fairfield Four
Jon Henrik

Listener Frisson Moment

1:34
3:17
2:34
2:07
2:25
2:50
2:33
0:16
2:47
3:36

Examples of Technique 5 - Pharyngeal Voice

Genre

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

Song

Lay Me Down
Madness
Love In Vain
The Promise
Cranes In The Sky
Goodbye To A World
Blue Bayou
Into the West (Lord of the Rings)
A Million Dreams (Greatest Showman)
Reckoner

Artist

Sam Smith
Muse
The Rolling Stones
Sturgill Simpson
Solange
Porter Robinson
Alison Porter
Annie Lennox
Benj Pasek & Justin Paul
Radiohead

Listener Frisson Moment

0:56
3:43
0:23
3:37
3:52
1:47
0:44
1:29
1:05
3:22

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