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.”

Definition

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A set of auditory cues that humans and animals produce when we experience social 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. It also makes them 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 listeners are to experience chills.

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 pitch oscillation

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The first Grief technique involves fast pitch oscillations that vary unevenly in rate and “height” (mimicking how the human voice unpredictably shakes when we become emotionally upset). In chills-inducing passages, the most reliable ways we see artists pull this off are:

  • Vocal vibrato: when a talented singer suddenly sounds notes with exceptional vibrato, either via an extraordinarily high rate of oscillation or via significant variation in the height of oscillations, typically paired with sparse arrangements and slow tempos to focus listeners on sound of the vocals
  • Vibrato on certain acoustic instruments: where a talented musician irregularly vibrates a string or reed to mimic the vibrato effect that singers can achieve with their vocal chords, most frequently violins, cellos, Uelliann pipes, oboes, and saxaphones (certain piano trills can also achieve the effect)
  • Production and certain electronic instruments: when producers artificially modulate the pitch and amplitude of a sound to achieve grief-like oscillations, or when an artist features a Hammond organ or MOOG synthesizers that can produce high-oscillation vibrato through electronic tremolo effects

Don’t interpret this technique as a “hack” that automatically results in chills. Just having a lead singer use fast vibrato on an exposed high note won’t work by itself. 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 this technique.

Technique #2: Pharyngeal voice

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The second Grief technique involves a nasal sound similar to the “ng” in the last part of a word like young or rung (which occurs when humans cry and their tears mix with nasal mucus, causing more air to pass through the sinus). In chills-inducing passages, the most reliable ways we see artists pull this off are:

  • Lead vocalists lowering their soft palette: when a talented singer raises their pharynx, lowers their soft palette, and constricts their throat to achieve the pharyngeal sound, typically highlighted with dynamics and placed at the peak of a phrase or end of a cadence when listener emotions are already heightened
  • Child singers: when an artist features youth vocalists, especially young male singers on the verge of puberty whose transitioning voice naturally produces a more constricted, nasal-heavy sound, typically contrasted with adult singers to draw listener attention to the pharyngeal sound 
  • Lyrics emphasizing ng, m, n, and i sounds: when an artist helps a singer highlight pharyngeal voice with lyrics that feature key consonant sounds during long, exposed notes, typically dropping out the rest of the arrangement to focus listener attention on the vocals
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 by itself. 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 this technique.

Technique #3: “Breaking” voice

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The third Grief technique involves uncontrolled transitions, or “breaks”, between the modal and falsetto vocal registers (mimicking how the pharynx tightens when humans cry, resulting in unpredictable swings into and out of falsetto). In chills-inducing passages, the most reliable ways we see artists pull this off are:

  • Breaking voice in lead vocals: when talented singers achieves an authentic break (listeners can easily detect a faked break) during exposed moments in songs, often on the first vocal entrance of a song or right before the end of a well-signaled cadence when they are least expected
  • Instruments mimicking breaking voice with disjunct motion: when a player mimics the contour of a vocal break by featuring an abrupt, quiet, large swing in pitch (often alternating 5ths, 6ths or 7ths), typically on muted string instruments or synths with smooth, legato notes
  • Certain extended vocal techniques: when a talented vocalist uses a technique like yodeling or ululation to achieve rapid, repeated transitions between chest voice and head voice, typically a cappella or surrounded by sparse orchestration to focus listeners on the vocals
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 by itself. 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 this technique.

Technique #4: Sudden falsetto

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The fourth Grief technique involves sudden shifts into the falsetto vocal register (mimicking how the human voice unconsciously shift up into an unstable falsetto with a “thin”, airy sound when we are sad). In chills-inducing passages, the most reliable ways we see artists pull this off are:

  • Long falsetto notes: where a vocalist abruptly switches from the modal register to falsetto and holds the first falsetto note for much longer than any of the notes in the preceding section, typically at the high point of a phrase or start of a new section to draw listener attention to the change in register
  • Male vocalists: where a male artist switches from chest voice to falsetto, which generally results in a greater contrast than a female vocalist given that on average men tend to have lower fundamental frequencies in their default modal register singing voice (e.g. Thom Yorke, Matt Bellamy, Adam Levine)
  • String instruments mimicking falsetto: where a player sounds artificial harmonics above the natural range of a violin or electric guitar, which often produces a thin, airy sound similar to the falsetto singing voice (and mimics the stretching of the vocal chords that occurs when humans use the falsetto register)
Don’t interpret this technique as a “hack” that automatically results in chills. Just having an average singer switch to falsetto on a climax won’t work by itself. Whether listeners experience frisson depends on the preceding section and the control over 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 this technique.

Technique #5: Arced, gliding pitch contours (“wails”)

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The fifth Grief technique involves gliding notes with a pronounced rise-and-fall contour (mimicking the uneven, wailing sounds humans produce when they are grieving and unable to maintain stable pitch or volume). In chills-inducing passages, the most reliable ways we see artists pull this off are:

  • Single, long glide with a slow rise and slow fall: where an artist features a prominent, arcing note that lasts several seconds and gradually swell at a constant rate in volume and pitch into a pronounced peak, typically on lead vocals with no or minimal accompaniment to focus listener attention
  • Repeated, fast glides with fast rise and fast fall: where an artist features of sequence of several arced notes, each lasting 1-2 seconds and accelerating into a peak (mimicking a burst of cries during intense grieving), typically on voice-like timbres including cello, electric guitar, and saxophone
  • Certain alternating progressions that mimic wailing: where an artist features a repeating chord change like I-iii-I-iii or IV-iv-IV-iv in which the falling pitch and shift from major to minor mimics the acoustic features of wails, typically sounded repeatedly at slow tempos and quiet dynamics to focus listener attention 
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 by itself. 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 this technique.

Examples of Technique 1: Rapid oscillation

Genre

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

Song

Quizas, quizas, quizas
Hope There’s Someone
Love of My Life
Leaning On the Everlasting Arm
Rise Up
RAMelia (Tribute to Amelia)
Un bel di vedremo (Madama Butterfly)
Gortoz a Ran (Black Hawk Down)
Memory (Cats)
Lover, Please Stay (live)

Artist

Gaby Moreno
Antony and the Johnsons
Queen
Iris Dement
Andra Day
RAM & Susana
Maria Callas (Puccini)
Lisa Gerrard, Denez Prigent, Hans Zimmer
Jennifer Hudson
Nothing But Thieves

Frisson Moment Reported by Listeners

2:12
0:27
0:50
0:03
0:35
2:35
0:01
0:59
3:11
2:29

Examples of Technique 2 - 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
Mariettas Lied
Into the West (Lord of the Rings)
A Million Dreams (Greatest Showman)
The Joke (live at the Grammys)

Artist

Sam Smith
Muse
The Rolling Stones
Sturgill Simpson
Solange
Porter Robinson
Korngold
Annie Lennox
Benj Pasek & Justin Paul
Brandi Carlile

Frisson Moment Reported by Listeners

0:56
3:43
0:23
3:37
3:52
1:47
3:34
1:29
1:05
3:17

Examples of Technique 3 - "Breaking" voice

Genre

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

Song

Purple Rain
Dance Monkey
Dreams
Crazy Arms
u
Tweet Yourself Right
Vesti la giubba – Pagliacci
Theme from Schindler’s List
Lonesome Valley
Ball and Chain (live)

Artist

Prince
Tones And I
The Cranberries
Ray Price
Kendrick Lamar
Reggie Watts
Pavarotti (Leoncavallo)
John Williams
The Fairfield Four
Janis Joplin

Frisson Moment Reported by Listeners

2:34
0:35
1:34
0:10
2:25
10:38
2:33
0:16
2:47
4:42

Examples of Technique 4 - 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 (AOL session)

Artist

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

Frisson Moment Reported by Listeners

1:07
1:22
0:52
2:51
0:58
0:28
5:38
5:13
2:50
1:05

Examples of Technique 5 - Arced 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)
The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald

Artist

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

Frisson Moment Reported by Listeners

1:07
2:31
7:26
1:00
2:28
3:14
2:49
1:39
3:47
3:22

Listens to more examples in the Qbrio Library