Harmonicity

Mimic the acoustic of multiple sound sources in perfect unison

“Oh my god Art Garfunkel’s voice and those harmonies. My goosebumps have goosebumps.”

Definition

The Harmonicity pattern is a set of techniques for temporarily confusing the number of sound sources in a song. Each voice and instrument tends to resonate at a slightly different fundamental frequency and related set of overtones, or harmonics. As a result, when musicians create two sounds that not only form a consonant interval (i.e. are in harmony), but that resonate at precisely the same fundamental frequency and produce harmonics that are all perfect integer multiples of that one fundamental frequency (i.e. harmonicity or perfect harmonic alignment), this can momentarily confuse our brains. The more abruptly artists create two or more overtone-rich sounds in perfect harmonic alignment, and the longer artists sustain the alignment, the more likely we are to experience chills.

Listen to examples 

Mechanism

There are two theories of how the Harmonicity pattern works. The leading theory is that it confuses our auditory system for separating sounds. Given that harmonically-related frequencies generally come from the same source, when we hear multiple sounds in perfect harmonic alignment it can create unsettling ambiguity. This ambiguity, it is thought, can momentarily scare us and give us chills. A second theory is that harmonicity-driven chills evolved as a “reward” for pro-social behavior. Given that perfect harmonic alignment requires musicians to listen to and adjust to one another, it’s plausible our brains began to reinforce this empathetic behavior with pleasurable chills. Neuroscientist Matt Sachs’ recent breakthrough research, which found that people who experience chills from music have more fibers in the part of the brain responsible for socio-emotional communication, supports this view.

Technique #1: Prolonged holds in perfect alignment

The first technique for creating a Harmonicity pattern is to have multiple vocalists achieve perfect alignment during a long, held chord. It usually takes a second or two after the onset of the sustained note for singers to adjust to each other and hit perfect alignment. Sustained notes also enable singers to bring out overtones and achiever richer sounds that enhance the effect.

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

  • Sudden shifts from a lead vocalist to ensemble vocals in alignment: typically on the climax of a phrase after a solo passage featuring only the lead vocalist
  • Sudden alignment between a lead and backing singer on a prominent hold: typically after a passage where the two singers were moving in unison but not perfectly aligned
  • Harmonizing high-resonance intervals: octaves, perfect fifths and fourths, major thirds, often having the order of intervals from lower to higher voices mirror the harmonic series
Don’t interpret these methods as “hacks” that automatically give listeners chills. Our data suggests that when using them, it helps to:

  • Set-up
  • Follow-up
  • Context

Anecdote:

Choral music specializes in creating powerful ensemble harmonicity moments; this is likely a key reason why choral music is such a popular submission to our dataset of frisson moments.

Technique #2: Atypical harmonic resonance

The second technique for creating a Harmonicity pattern is to use sounds that bring out unusual overtones within a harmonic series. Global polyphonic folk traditions appear frequently in our dataset of listener frisson moments. While they are diverse, these traditions have in common various ways (vocal techniques, chord structures, etc.) to bring out and align overtones in ways that are different from what we are accustomed to in Western diatonic music.

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

  • Larynx and vocal fold manipulations that create a “throat-y” sound: typically bringing out lower overtones and sub-harmonics (e.g. Sardinian cantu e tenore, Mongolian Kargyraa)
  • Throat and vocal tract manipulations that accentuate different formants: typically concentrating energy in certain under-represented overtones (e.g. squillo
  • Microtonal and other techniques that create a more “nasal” sound: typically bringing out upper overtones (e.g. Bulgarian folk music, American bluegrass, etc.)
Don’t interpret these methods as “hacks” that automatically give listeners chills. Our data suggests that when using them, it helps to:

  • Set-up
  • Follow-up
  • Context

Anecdote:

Technique #3: Self-harmonization

The third technique for creating a Harmonicity pattern is to bring out an overtone or undertone to such an extent that is is heard as a second, perfectly harmonically aligned pitch. It’s typically easier for a musician to achieve perfect harmonic alignment with themself rather than with another performer. Even identical instruments sounding the same note in the same register (e.g. two violins) tend to produce slightly different overtone resonances. 

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

  • Overtone singing traditions: where vocalists manipulate their vocal folds to bring out a second overtone or undertone to such an extent it is heard as a second, aligned pitch 
  • Artificial harmonics on string instruments: typically during sustained notes on violin or electric guitar in the upper range of the instrument
  • Double-tracked vocals or synced recordings of one vocalist singing every part in an arrangement: typically after pre-recording each track or part separately
Don’t interpret these methods as “hacks” that automatically give listeners chills. Our data suggests that when using them, it helps to:

  • Set-up
  • Follow-up
  • Context

Anecdote:

Musician Neko Case points out that this technique depends on how well a given artists’s voice blends with others: “Sometimes you can harmonize with your own voice and it works and sometimes it vibrates too badly in a way that isn’t good. I have a really nasal voice so I don’t blend well with people and sometimes not with myself  either.”

Technique #4: Contrapuntal motion in perfect alignment

The fourth technique for creating a Harmonicity pattern is to feature two vocalists or instruments moving in unison while maintaining perfect harmonic alignment. This typically requires talented musicians and lengthy collaborations before two musicians can be sufficiently in sync to execute this technique effectively. 

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

  • Oblique motion: especially harmonic drones against a melodic lead line that create fleeting moments of harmonicity when the lead line hits certain intervals against the bass (e.g. Aramaic chant, bagpipes)
  • Parallel and polyphonic motion: typically in sparse vocal or instrumental duets, where a melodic line can can pause on certain resonant intervals and consonant letters to create harmonicity moments
  • Overtone-rich instruments: human voice, steel-pedal guitar, crotales, vibraphones, etc. that can create a cohensive “wash” of perfectly aligned harmonic sounds
Don’t interpret these methods as “hacks” that automatically give listeners chills. Our data suggests that when using them, it helps to:

  • Set-up
  • Follow-up
  • Context

Anecdote:

Technique #5: Certain repeated, alternating intervals

The fifth technique for creating a Harmonicity pattern is to feature repeated, alternating intervals between overtones in a harmonic series. This technique is likely effective because it creates fleeting moments of perfect harmonic alignment between the decay of the previous note and the onset of the next note (assuming the tuning is precise).

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

  • Alternating perfects 5ths and octaves: on overtone-rich timbres like human voice, piano, and string instruments like violins and guitars 
  • Arpeggios: typically mirroring the order of the intervals of the harmonic series (e.g. with octaves and fifths at the bottom and fourths and third towards the top)
  • Slow-decay timbres and reverb: typically slow-decay instruments like piano with pedal down and crotales or reverb added to impulse sound sourcs
Don’t interpret these methods as “hacks” that automatically give listeners chills. Our data suggests that when using them, it helps to:

  • Set-up
  • Follow-up
  • Context

Anecdote:

Examples of Technique 1: Holds in perfect harmonic alignment

Genre

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

Song

I Won’t Give Up
Ragged Wood
Dead and Done
Remind Me
xxx
Wicked Game
Marie Theres! (Der Rosenkavalier)
Into the Unknown (Frozen 2)
Take Me Or Leave Me (Rent)
Wedding Song (There Is Love)

Artist

Jason Mraz
Fleet Foxes
Brothers McCann
Brad Paisley
xxx
Ursine Vulpine
Richard Strauss
Idina Menzel & AURORA
Idina Menzel & Tracie Thomas
Peter, Paul & Mary

Listener Frisson Moment

2:50-2:52
0:00
3:50-3:55
3:22-3:25
0:00
3:08
3:35-3:38
2:48-2:49
3:37-3:40
0:59

Examples of Technique 2 - Contrapuntal motion in harmonic alignment

Genre

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

Song

Imagine
Holocene
The Sound of Silence
Amazing Grace
xxx
Lean On
Here and Heaven
xxx
Ashokan Farewell (The Civil War)
Creep

Artist

Pentatonix
Bon Iver
Simon & Garfunkel
Judy Collins
xxx
Major Lazer
Yo-Yo Ma & Stuart Duncan
xxx
Jay Unger
Carrie Manolakos (Radiohead)

Listener Frisson Moment

3:24
1:13
0:24-0:26
1:57
xxx
0:30
0:40
xxx
3:08
2:40-2:52

Examples of Technique 3 - Unusual harmonic resonances

Genre

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

Song

Don’t Leave
Fare Thee Well (Dink’s Song)
Wuthering Heights
One Loaf of Bread
BLOOD.
Invincible (feat. iDA HAWK)
Schemodzakhili
S’Rothe Zauerili (Grand Budapest Hotel)
Jisas Yu Holem Bling (The Thin Red Line)
Cantu e tenore

Artist

Ane Brun
Oscar Isaac & Marcus Mumford
Kate Bush
Dave Evans
Kendrick Lamar
Big Wild
Georgian Polyphonic Singing
Ose Schuppel
Choir of All Saints (Honaira)
Sardinian Polyphonic Singing

Listener Frisson Moment

0:48
0:59
0:08
4:02-4:04
0:00
0:38
0:08
0:10
0:08
1:57

Examples of Technique 4 - Self-harmonization

Genre

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

Song

Havana (feat. Young Thug)
Bride
Life on Mars?
How Great Thou Art
Something (feat. Lalah Hathaway)
Divine Moments of Truth
Violin Concerto, Op. 47
The Beautiful Steppe (Marco Polo)
Skinny Love
Unchained Melody

Artist

Camila Cabello
San Fermin
David Bowie
Sam Robson
Snarky Puppy
Shpongle
Sibelius (Mutter)
Batzorig Vaanchig
University of Michigan G-Men
Michael Yung

Listener Frisson Moment

0:48
1:01
1:20
3:40
6:10
1:22
4:02
1:19-1:29
0:04-0:23
0:14

Examples of Technique 5 - Repeated alternating harmonic intervals

Genre

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

Song

Where The Streets Have No Name
One Big Holiday
Baba O’Riley
Walking In Memphis
xxx
Cheerleader (Felix Jaehn Remix)
Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major – Prelude
Ava (Ex Machina)
We Know the Way (Moana)
Diva Dance

Artist

U2
My Morning Jacket
The Who
Marc Cohn
xxx
Omi
Bach (Yo-Yo Ma)
Ben Salisbury & Geoff Barrow
Opetaia Foa’i & Lin-Manuel Miranda
DisneyDiva7

Listener Frisson Moment

0:10
0:20
0:00
0:00
xxx
1:12
0:00
0:51
0:27
1:27-1:39

Listens to thousands more examples in our Library