Grief

Mimic the acoustics of a sound source in emotional distress

 

“My god, did her trembling voice ever send chills down my spine.”  

The Grief pattern is a set of auditory cues that characterize the vocalizations humans (and animals) emit when we experience loss. Anguished sounds like crying and wailing have consistent, distinct acoustics meant to attract comfort from nearby listeners (see the five techniques below). The more abruptly you introduce the Grief pattern, and the more you intensify the aural properties that distinguish it, the more likely audiences are to experience chills.

Note: The five techniques below are not mutually exclusive and are often combined in pairs.

There are two theories of how the Grief Pattern triggers our instinctual fight-or-flight response.

One theory is that the Grief Pattern can make us vicariously “feel” emotional pain. 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 emotional vulnerability. These dual forces – of imagining the hypothetical loss of a social bond and realizing the power that social attachments have on us – can trigger a frisson-inducing fear response, so the theory goes. 

A second theory is that the Grief Pattern can trigger a part of our brain that evolved to encourage infant care-giving. Neuroscientists Jaak Panksepp thinks we have a “separation-distress brain system” that automatically makes us feel momentary fear when we hear an infant or loved one in pain. This brain system induces “chills” or a feeling of being cold, to encourage us to physically go to and hold the person in distress (and thereby warm up). Academics tend to view this theory as speculative and less supported by evidence than the empathy theory.

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 evolved to convey urgency be difficult to ignore. The most difficult acoustic feature to habituate to, given that it literally has no predictable parameters, is randomness. As a result, grief cues are non-linear, asymmetric, and difficult to fake; musicians often have imagine and make themselves feel the painful emotions of anguish and sorrow to achieve authentic grief sounds.

Our listener data indicates that very fast pitch oscillations often induce frisson. This technique 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 trembling is rare and difficult to achieve. This makes rapid, non-linear oscillation – on vocals or instruments – especially effective for frisson.

In chills-inducing passages, some of the most reliable ways we see composers and performers using this technique include:

  • Very fast, non-linear vocal vibrato, where the rate and size of fluctuation are abnormally high (e.g. Freddie Mercury, Dolly Parton, Edith Piaf and Carlos Gardel all have unusual vibratos and they were each frequent submissions to our dataset of frisson moments)
  • Irregular rhythmic stuttering and trembling, where vocalisms accelerate and de-accelerate rapidly and non-linearly (e.g. Janis Joplin’s famous explosion near the end of her 1968 performance of “Ball and Chain” at the Monterey Pop Festival)
  • Rapid tremolo on certain instruments, for example cello, violin, oboe, Uelian pipes, saxaphone, Hammond organ, and MOOG synthesizers, which can create and sustain oscillation rates faster than those produced by even the most talented vocalists

Rapid oscillation is not a “hack” that automatically gives listeners chills. Our data suggests that when using this technique, it helps to:

  • Placement: Feature these vocalisms at the beginning of songs or start of new section to make them especially conspicuous and jarring for listeners
  • Context: Surround these vocalisms with sparse arrangements (e.g. solo vocals or only piano accompaniment) to prevent non-acoustic distractions
  • Follow-Up: 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
Anecdote: Pop standards featuring this technique are a frequent submission to our dataset of frisson moments (and are often sampled by modern artists). Prominent submission include Tommy James’ “Crimson and Clover” in the United States, Carlos Gardel’s “Mi Buenos Querido” in Latin America, and Edith Piaf’s “Non, je ne regrette rien” in Europe.

Our listener data indicates that unstable transitions, or “breaks”, between vocal registers often induce frisson. Breaking voice is one of the most consistent features of grief vocalizations. When you cry, a part of your throat called the pharynx tightens, resulting in sudden unpredictable swings between registers (i.e. breaks). This randomness makes breaking voice especially effective for frisson and is why so many artists use it for musical purposes.

In chills-inducing passages, some of the most reliable ways we see composers and performers using this technique include:

  • Prominent voice “breaks” in lead vocals, where a talented singers achieves an authentic, uncontrolled transition between registers
  • Instruments mimicking breaking voice via disjunct melodic motion, for example muted synths with abrupt, large swings in pitch and gentle attack on the two notes 
  • Yodeling and similar vocal techniques featuring rapid, repeated alternations between vocal registers 

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:

  • Placement: 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
  • Context: 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
  • Follow-Up: Repeat breaks, or leave a rest after a prominent break, to re-assure listeners the break is intentional and create space for a positive listener appraisal response

Anecdote: Voice breaks are 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 profiled in this study also appeared in our dataset of listener frisson moments.

Our listener data indicates that a “nasal” singing voice, which passes more sound through the sinus and head cavity than the mouth, often induces frisson. 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 key characteristic of grief vocalizations. When we cry, a part of our throat called the pharynx tightens and our tears mix with nasal mucus, resulting in an unstable, “nasal” sound (i.e. pharyngeal voice).

In chills-inducing passages, some of the most reliable ways we see composers and performers using this technique include:

  • Lead vocalists lowering their soft palette and suddenly switching from “chest” voice to “head” voice 
  • Child singers, especially young male singers on the verge of puberty whose voice has a naturally nasal-heavy sound
  • Prominent use of lyrics emphasizing ng, m, n, and i sounds, often on long, held notes to accentuate the nasal sound

Nasal-sounding vocals are not a “hack” that automatically gives listeners chills. Our data suggests that when using this technique, it helps to:

  • Placement: 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
  • Context: 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
  • Follow-up: 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
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 in the band’s top hits “Uprising” and “Madness”. Not coincidentally, the climaxes of these two songs are the most frequently flagged moments from Muse’s music in our frisson dataset.

Our data indicates that asymmetric, sweeping pitch contours – either a fast, upward glide followed by a slow long descent, or vice versa – often induce frisson. Researchers have confirmed that grief vocalizations exhibit  gliding contours (most often descending). This is commonly referred to as wailing or howling. Prolonged asymmetric glides, paired with asymmetric swells in volume, are especially effective for frisson.

In chills-inducing passages, some of the most reliable ways we see composers and performers using this technique include:

  • Single, slow glides, typically during exposed sections and on lead vocals
  • Fast, repeated glides, featured on lead vocals and voice-like instruments including electric guitar and cello
  • Certain chord changes that mimic “falling” pitch contours, for example moves like I-iii and IV-iv sounded repeatedly at slower tempos 

Pitch glides are not a “hack” that automatically give listeners chills. Our data suggests that when using this technique, it helps to:

  • Placement: Feature 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
  • Context: Surround glides with ambient, heavy reverb timbres/doubling singers and relatively quiet, slow-tempo, high-pitch passages that place listeners in a sad emotional context so that the glide can amplify the existing sentiments
  • Follow-Up: Hold or repeat glides to re-assure listeners they are intentional and create space for a positive listener appraisal response
Anecdote: Lament traditions including Georgian Aramaic chant, Portuguese fado, and American gospel music are frequent submissions to our dataset of listener frisson moments. These traditions all prominently feature long, slow, falling pitch contours, highlighting the effectiveness of this grief cue across cultures.

Our listener data indicates that quiet, very high-pitched notes with a thin, “airy” sound often induce frisson. Researchers have confirmed that high pitch and prominent inhaling/exhaling (e.g. gasps) are distinguishing features of human and animal grief vocalizations. When singers sound notes in upper registers beyond their “comfortable” range, or when string instrument suddenly switch to artificial harmonics, is it especially attention-grabbing and effective for frisson.

In chills-inducing passages, some of the most reliable ways we see composers and performers using this technique include:

  • Sudden shifts into falsetto register, especially by male vocalists (e.g. Sigur Ros, Radiohead, Muse) 
  • Sudden leaps into whistle register, usually by talented female vocalists (e.g. Mariah Carey, Minnie Riperton)
  • Artificial harmonics on string instruments, most frequently violin and electric guitar at the very top of their range

Falsetto is not a “hack” that automatically gives listeners chills. Our data suggests that when using this technique, it helps to:

  • Placement: Place these shifts to upper registers in relatively quiet, slow-tempo, high-pitch passages that have already placed listeners in a sad emotional context
  • 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
  • Follow-up: 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

Anecdote: Male falsetto singing is very prominent in our dataset of listener frisson moments. The Icelandic post-rock band Sigur Ros is especially popular, in particular their song “Festival” (featured in the film 127 Hours) . Lead singer Jonsi’s falsetto vocals have been featured in several movie soundtracks, including all of the Dreamworks How To Train Your Dragon films. 

Technique 1 – Rapid, irregular trembling

Genre

Song

Frisson Moment Flagged By Listeners

Link

Pop

Rise Up

Andra Day

From 0:35

Alternative / Indie

Hope There’s Someone

Antony and the Johnsons

From 0:27

Rock / Metal

Ball and Chain (live)

Janis Joplin

4:42-4:46

Dance / Electronic

RAMelia (Tribute To Amelia)

RAM & Susana

2:34-2:35

Hip-hop / R&B

Pyscho

Post Malone

1:08-1:09

Country / Folk

Leaning On the Everlasting Arms

Iris Dement

Opening 

Classical

Un bel di vedremo (Madama Butterly)

Puccini (Callas)

Opening

Film Music

Gortoz a Ran (Black Hawk Down)

Hans Zimmer & Denez Prigent

From 0:59

Soundtracks

Memory (Cats)

Jennifer Hudson

From 3:11

Other

Quizás, quizás, quizás

Gaby Moreno

2:12

Technique 2 – Gliding pitch contours (usually descending)

Genre

Song

Frisson Moment Flagged By Listeners

Link

Pop

Jealous

Josh Daniels

From 1:07

Alternative / Indie

Self Control

Frank Ocean

From 2:31

Rock / Metal

Maggot Brain

Funkadelic

From 7:26

Dance / Electronic

A Way To Say Goodbye

Seven Lions

From 3:13

Hip-Hop / R&B

Strange Fruit

Nina Simone

2:24-2:34

Country / Folk

Either Way

Chris Stapleton

From 1:00

Classical

Psalm 50

Seraphim Bit-Kharibi

2:49-2:51

Film Music

Message For the Queen (300)

Tyler Bates

1:38-1:41

Soundtracks

Shadowland (The Lion King Musical)

Heather Headley & Ensemble

From 3:47

Other

El Triste (en vivo)

Jose Jose

From 2:59

Technique 3 – Falsetto 

Genre

Song

Frisson Moment Flagged By Listeners

Link

Pop

Angel

Sarah McLachlan

1:06-1:09

Alternative / Indie

John Wayne Gacy Jr.

Sufjan Stevens

1:22-1:26

Rock / Metal

Festival

Sigur Rós

From 0:52

Dance / Electronic

We’re All We Need

Above & Beyond

0:28-0:43

Hip-hop / R&B

Honesty

Pink Sweat$

From 0:59

Country / Folk

Drinkin’ Me Lonely

Chris Young

2:51-2:55

Classical

Caprice No. 24

Paganini (Heifetz)

5:38 (mimics falsetto)

Film Music

The Bridge of Khazad-dum (The Lord of the Rings)

Howard Shore

5:14-5:24

Soundtracks

Ezio’s Family (Assassin;s Creed 2)

Jesper Kyd

2:47-2:52

Other

The Blower’s Daughter

Damien Rice

2:46-2:47

Technique 4 – Breaking voice

Genre

Song

Frisson Moment Flagged By Listeners

Link

Pop

Dreams

The Cranberries

From 1:34

Alternative / Indie

The Joke (live)

Brandi Carlile

3:17

Rock / Metal

Purple Rain

Prince

2:34-2:38

Dance / Electronic

Not Coming Down

Ferry Corsten

From 2:50 (synths mimic breaks)

Hip-Hop / R&B

u

Kendrick Lamar

From 2:25

Country / Folk

Crazy

Patsy Cline

2:07-2:08

Classical

Vesti la giubba (Pagliacci)

Leoncavallo

From 2:33 

Film Music

Theme from Schindler’s List

John Williams

From 0:16 (violin mimics breaks)

Soundtracks

Lonesome Valley (O Brother Where Art Thou)

Fairfield Four

From 2:47

Other

Daniel Jojk

Jon Henrik

From 3:36

Technique 5 – Pharyngeal voice

Genre

Song

Frisson Moment Flagged By Listeners

Link

Pop

Lay Me Down

Sam Smith

0:56-0:59

Alternative / Indie

Madness

Muse

3:43-3:46

Rock / Metal

Love In Vain

The Rolling Stones

0:23-0:25

Hip-Hop / R&B

Cranes In The Sky

Solange

3:52-3:53

Dance / Electronic

Goodbye To A World

Porter Robinson

From 1:47

Country / Folk

The Promise

Sturgill Simpson

From 3:37

Country / Folk

Blue Bayou

Alison Porter

0:44

Film Music

Into the West (The Lord of the Rings)

Annie Lennox

1:29-1:32

Soundtracks

A Million Dreams (The Greatest Showman)

Benj Pasek & Justin Paul

1:05-1:07

Other

Reckoner

Radiohead

3:22-3:25

Listens to thousands more examples in our Library