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, rare acoustic features. These features are highly unstable and 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 the Grief pattern in a song, the music makes us imagine what it would be like if we lost a loved one. And through this empathizing process, we feel a moment of fear and are moved to 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 cold chills when we hear an infant crying. These 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 generally have to make themselves imagine and feel anguish to achieve authentic grief cues in their music.

Technique #1: Rapid, irregular trembling

The first Grief pattern technique is to use sounds with very fast pitch oscillations. Researchers have confirmed that the more emotionally upset we become, the more rapidly and unpredictably our voice shakes. While many musicians can pull off steady vibratos, it takes special skills to achieve irregular, grief-like trembling (either in lead vocals or on instruments). 

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

  • Fast, non-linear vibrato or rhythmic stuttering: string instruments and unique voices where the rate and size of vocal oscillations is abnormally high and irregular (e.g. Freddie Mercury, Dolly Parton, Edith Piaf, Carlos Gardel are all frequent submissions to our dataset)
  • Certain high-oscillation instruments: Hammond organ, MOOG synthesizers, cello, Uelian pipes, and saxophone, typically with extreme dynamics (either very loud or very soft)
  • Feature during opening sections or exposed transitions: typically in long intros with sparse arrangements, or transitions where the ensemble drops out, to focus listener attention

Don’t interpret this technique as a “hack” that automatically results in chills. Just featuring a violin with heavy vibrato won’t work. 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 heavily and are frequent submissions to our dataset of listener frisson moments. Prominent examples include Tommy James’ “Crimson and Clover” in the US, Carlos Gardel’s “Mi Buenos Aires Querido” in Latin America, and Edith Piaf’s “Non, je ne regrette rien” in Europe.

Technique #2: Breaking voice

The second Grief pattern technique involves voice “breaks”.  When we cry, a part of our throat called the pharynx tightens, resulting in random, unpredictable swings between the modal and falsetto registers (i.e. breaks). Researchers have confirmed that breaking voice is one of the most consistent features of human grief vocalizations.

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 breaks during exposed points in songs, often right before the end of cadences when they are least expected
  • Instruments mimicking breaking voice with disjunct motion: alternating octaves on solo violin, muted synths with abrupt swings in pitch, all with smooth, legato onset of the notes
  • Yodeling and other extended vocal techniques: typically a cappella or surrounded by sparse orchestration (e.g., the opening sequence of The Grand Budapest Hotel film)
Don’t interpret this technique as a “hack” that automatically results in chills. Just having a leader singer force a sudden voice break won’t work. 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 pattern 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, nasal 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 increasing the singing volume, often at the high point of a phrase or end of a cadence
  • Child singers: especially young male singers on the verge of puberty, whose transitioning voice naturally has a more nasal-heavy sound (these young singers are frequently used in choirs)
  • Lyrics emphasizing ng, m, n, and i sounds: typically on long hold notes to bring out the nasal sound of these letters and make sure listeners catch it
Don’t interpret this technique as a “hack” that automatically results in chills. Just having a leader singer try to sound more “nasal-y” won’t work. 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 of listener frisson moments. Lead singer Matt Bellamy regularly uses pharyngeal voice, especially during the climaxes of the band’s top hits “Uprising” and “Madness”. Not coincidentally, these climaxes are two of the most frequently flagged moments in our dataset from all of Muse’s catalogue.

Technique #4: Gliding pitch contours (usually descending)

The fourth Grief pattern technique involves sounds with sweeping, asymmetric pitch contours. These gliding sounds, which can be arced with a pronounced peak or simply long slow descents, are typically referred to as wailing or howling. Researchers have confirmed these falling pitch contours are a consistent features of human and animal grief vocalizations. 

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

  • Single slow glides: typically during exposed sections on lead vocals where the accompaniment drops out or is reduced to focus listener attention 
  • Fast repeated glides with pronounced peaks: on voice-like instruments like electric guitar, cello, and lead vocals, mimicking a fit or burst of sobbing like humans sometimes experience
  • Certain progressions that mimic falling pitch contours: chord changes like I-iii and IV-iv, typically sounded repeatedly at slow tempos and quiet dynamics
Don’t interpret this technique as a “hack” that automatically results in chills. Just plugging in a I-iii-I-iii chord progression won’t work. 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: Falsetto

The fifth Grief pattern technique involves sudden shifts into the falsetto vocal register. When singers use falsetto, or when certain string instruments sound in upper registers above their comfortable range, it produce a thin, “airy” sound. Researchers have confirmed that uncontrolled shifts to falsetto register are a consistent features of human grief vocalizations.

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

  • Sudden shifts to the falsetto vocal register: typically with male vocalists (e.g. Sigur Ros, Radiohead, Muse, Maroon 5, etc.)
  • Prominent, strained breathing sounds: punctuated gasping, sobbing, and exhaling 
  • Artificial harmonics on string instruments: violin and electric guitar sounding artificial harmonics or other notes at the very top of their range
Don’t interpret this technique as a “hack” that automatically results in chills. Just switching to falsetto on the chorus won’t work. 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, in particular their song “Festival”. 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 trembling

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 (usually descending)

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
1:00
3:13
2:49
1:38
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

1:06
1:22
0:52
2:51
0:59
0:28-0:43
5:38
5:14-5:24
2:48-2:52
2:46

Examples of Technique 4 - Breaking Voice

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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