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 creating overtone-rich sounds where the harmonics are perfect integer multiples of one fundamental frequency. Every voice and instrument – even two pianos sounding the same note – tend to resonate at slightly different fundamentals (e.g., A4 at 440.3 Hz vs. 441.5 Hz) and bring out different harmonic vs. inharmonic overtones. When musicians sound two notes that not only form a consonant interval (i.e. harmony), but are also perfectly in tune and produce rich harmonics (i.e. harmonicity), this often results in frisson. The more abruptly artists achieve alignment, and the longer artists can sustain it, the more likely we are to experience chills.

Listen to examples 

Mechanism

There are two theories of why the Harmonicity pattern can induce frisson. One theory is that harmomnicity confuses our auditory system for separating sounds. Given that harmonically-related frequencies generally come from the same source, when we hear two perfectly aligned sounds it can create ambiguity. We aren’t certain how many voices or instruments we are hearing. 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 that we adapted to reinforce this empathetic behavior with pleasurable chills. Neuroscientist Matt Sachs’ 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 Harmonicity technique involves vocalists hitting perfect alignment during a long, held chord. It usually takes 1-2 seconds after the onset of the notes for artists to adjust to each other (without auto-tune); it’s especially effective when performers align immediately on the entrance, but this takes significant skill and practice. Long notes also enable singers to achieve rich sounds with more overtones that enhance the effect.

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

  • Sudden alignment at the end of a cadence or start of a new section: artists tend to place these vocal alignments at the end of well-signaled progressions (when listeners are distracted by the melody) or at the very beginning of a song or new section (when listeners are unprepared) to enhance their impact
  • Harmonizing high-resonance intervals: perfect tuning is the key, but artists also tend to use certain intervals (octaves and perfect fifths, beyond the standard 3rds of close harmonies) and arrange the intervals from lowest to highest mirroring the harmonic series (octaves in lower, 3rds in upper voices) 
  • Voices and voice-like woodwinds: singing voices are the most effective timbre for this technique (usually a cappella or with minimal accompaniment during the held chord), but certain reed instruments like the saxophone, clarinet, and oboe can also work (fipple winds like the flute are much less effective)
Don’t interpret this technique as a “hack” that automatically results in chills. Just having two vocalists harmonize an octave at the end of a cadence 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 Harmonicity pattern.

Anecdote: Choral and a capella music is prominent in our dataset of listener frisson moments. Many singers report unique feelings of connection and “oneness” with other performers during particular chords. Singers often can point to a specific moment in a certain performance or rehearsal, even years later, when they experienced visceral chills. This is anecdotal evidence for the theory of that chills from harmonicity evolved as a “reward” for pro-social behavior.

Technique #2: Contrapuntal motion in perfect alignment

The second Harmonicity technique involves two voices moving in and out of alignment via counterpoint. A common move in many popular genres is to harmonize a lead line with a back-up singer moving in parallel a third above and below the melody. But this isn’t enough to cause chills; careful tuning, timing, and a rich sound in each voice are required for the counterpoint to move listeners to frisson. 

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

  • Certain sequences of prolonged, perfectly in-tune parallel motion: while 3rds above and below the melody are most common, frisson moments often feature movement via parallel 4ths and 5ths, typically with holds on resonant vowels to focus listeners on the harmonies
  • Certain instances of oblique and contrary motion in and out of alignment: where one line moves through harmonic intervals against a drone on the tonic, or where two lines move independently and then pass through harmonic intervals from different directions, to create fleeting moments of perfect alignment
  • Vocal and string duets and quartets: typically paired with slow tempos to help performers prepare for and hit alignment during exposed chords, and featuring holds on resonant vowels to help bring out overtones and focus listener attention more on the sound of the harmonies than the melodic motion
Don’t interpret this technique as a “hack” that automatically results in chills. Just having a back-up singer harmonize the melody 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 Harmonicity pattern.

Anecdote: Simon and Garfunkel’s 1965 classic “The Sound of Silence” is one of the most popular submissions, across all genres, to our dataset of listener frisson moments.  Many listeners report chills during the intro, which features several perfectly synced moments of oblique motion between the vocalists.o

Technique #3: Certain repeated, alternating intervals

The third Harmonicity technique involves alternating sequences across the notes in a harmonic series. Musicians tend to use this technique at the beginning of a song or section. By opening with it, artists can focus us on the harmonic ambience between the decay of the previous note and the onset of the next, before we’ve anchored on melodic movement (and will find the alternating intervals simplistic).

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

  • Alternating notes across “perfect” intervals (4ths, 5ths, octaves): typically repeated several times with slight rhythmic variation and highlighted with dynamics to focus listener attention on the resonance of the intervals and help the notes “bleed” together in alignment
  • Certain repeating arpeggios: typically spread across octaves, mirroring the order the harmonic series (e.g. with octaves and fifths at the bottom and fourths and third towards the top), and continuing across changing chords to create fresh alignments with each new fundamental frequency
  • Slow-decay timbres: human voice (often with added reverb), steel-pedal guitar, crotales, bagpipes, vibraphones, chimes, piano with pedal down, harp, acoustic guitar with amp, etc., all with precise tuning to help create a cohesive “wash” of sound 
Don’t interpret this technique as a “hack” that automatically results in chills. Just playing an arpeggio on the piano with the pedal down 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 Harmonicity pattern.

Anecdote: The intro to U2’s 1987 hit, “Where The Streets Have No Name” was a popular submission to our dataset of listener frisson moments. The opening section lasts almost 90 seconds and is built around a prominent Harmonicity pattern with the repeating arpeggios in the lead guitars.

Technique #4: Self-harmonization

The fourth Harmonicity technique involves bringing out an overtone or undertone to such an extent that it is heard as a second, harmonically aligned pitch. It’s typically easier for a musician to achieve perfect alignment with themselves 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 reliable ways we see artists pull off this technique are:

  • Multi-tracked or over-dubbed vocals: common in pop and rock music and most effective when there are slight variations across the tracks or recordings in order to bring out different (but still aligned) overtones, create a richer texture, and prevent the components from dissappearing too much into one sound
  • Overtone singing: achieved by various techniques for manipulating the vocal folds to bring out a second overtone or undertone to such an extent that it is heard as a second, perfectly-aligned pitch; Tuvaan and Mongolian throat singing are submitted frequently our dataset of listener frisson moments
  • Artificial harmonics on string instruments: typically on violins or guitars and most effective when sounded as the melody moves through medium-sized steps like 4ths and 5ths (mimicking the parallel motion described above in “Technique 2: Contrapuntal motion in and out of alignment”)
Don’t interpret this technique as a “hack” that automatically results in chills. Just featuring a passage with pinch harmonics on electric guitar 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 Harmonicity pattern.

Anecdote: American singer-songwriter Neko Case thinks this technique depends on tone. As she stated on a recent podcast, “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 #5: Atypical harmonic resonance

The fifth Harmonicity technique involves sounds that bring out unusual overtone combinations 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 technique, register, chord structure) to bring out and align overtones in ways that differ from the typical triads in Western music.

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

  • Throat, larynx and vocal fold manipulations that create a “wider” sound: typically featured in voices sounding the bottom note of a harmonic interval or chord and bringing out unusual harmonics to create a distinctive broad sound (e.g. Sardinian cantu e tenore, Bulgarian pharynx technique)
  • Microtonal and other techniques that create a “taller” sound: typically featured in lead voices sounding the highest note of a chord and creating a more compressed, brighter sound that accentuates unusual overtones (e.g. “edge” in American bluegrass) 
  • Alignments in vocal registers other than modal voice: typically harmonies in the falsetto register, paired with more melancholy chords and lyrics, slow tempos, and sparse arrangements (e.g. European yodeling traditions, acoustic folk and indie, etc.)
Don’t interpret this technique as a “hack” that automatically results in chills. Just having one voice in a duet harmonize in falsetto 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 Harmonicity pattern.

Anecdote: Excerpts from the 1989, Grammy-winning Mystery of Bulgarian Voices album by the Bulgarian State Television Female Choir were very popular submissions to our dataset. Artists including Lisa Gerrard, Robert Plant, Crosby & Nash, and Jason Derulo, have pointed to this group as a source of inspiration.

Examples of Technique 1: Holds in perfect harmonic alignment

Genre

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

Song

I Won’t Give Up
Ragged Wood
Dead and Done
Remind Me
Better Now
Wicked Game
Marie Theres! (Der Rosenkavalier)
Into the Unknown (Frozen 2)
Take Me Or Leave Me (Rent)
Creep

Artist

Jason Mraz
Fleet Foxes
Brothers McCann
Brad Paisley
Post Malone
Ursine Vulpine
Richard Strauss
AURORA & Idina Menzel
Idina Menzel & Tracie Thomas
Carrie Manolakos (Radiohead)

Frisson Moment Flagged by Listeners

2:50-2:52
0:00
3:50-3:55
3:22-3:25
3:31
3:08
3:35-3:38
2:49
3:37-3:40
2:52

Examples of Technique 2 - Contrapuntal motion in harmonic alignment

Genre

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

Song

Imagine
Royals
The Sound of Silence
Amazing Grace
Drop It Low
Lean On
Spem in Alium
Know Who You Are (Moana)
Ashokan Farewell (The Civil War)
Schemodzakhili

Artist

Pentatonix
Lorde
Simon & Garfunkel
Judy Collins
Ester Dean & Chris Brown
Major Lazer
Thomas Tallis
Auli’i Cravalho & Opetaia Foa’i
Jay Unger
Georgian Polyphonic Singing

Frisson Moment Flagged by Listeners

3:24-3:44
0:23-0:28
0:22-0:26
1:56-2:06
2:25-2:27
0:28-0:36
7:43-7:57
0:19-0:31
3:07-3:12
0:08

Examples of Technique 3 - Repeated alternating harmonic intervals

Genre

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

Song

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

Artist

Omi
My Morning Jacket
The Who
Marc Cohn
H.E.R.
Eric Prydz
Bach (Yo-Yo Ma)
Ben Salisbury & Geoff Barrow
Opetaia Foa’i & Lin-Manuel Miranda
DisneyDiva7

Frisson Moment Flagged by Listeners

1:12
0:20
0:00
0:00
0:00
3:09
0:00
0:50-1:00
0:27-0:32
1:36-1:39

Examples of Technique 4 - Self-harmonization

Genre

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

Song

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

Artist

Camila Cabello
San Fermin
David Bowie
Drinkin’ Town with a Football Problem
Snarky Puppy
Shpongle
Sibelius (Mutter)
Batzorig Vaanchig
University of Michigan G-Men
Sam Robson

Frisson Moment Flagged by Listeners

0:48
1:01
1:20
3:35
6:10
1:28
4:02
1:19-1:29
0:04-0:23
4:03

Examples of Technique 5 - Atypical harmonic resonances

Genre

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

Song

Don’t Leave
Holocene
Red Cold River
One Loaf of Bread
BLOOD.
Invincible (feat. iDA HAWK)
Kaval Sviri
S’Rothe Zauerili (Grand Budapest Hotel)
God Yu Tekem Laef Blong Mi (Thin Red Line)
Cantu e tenore

Artist

Ane Brun
Bon Iver
Breaking Benjamin
Dave Evans
Kendrick Lamar
Big Wild
Bulgarian State Female Choir
Ose Schuppel
Choir of All Saints (Honaira)
Sardinian Polyphonic Singing

Frisson Moment Flagged by Listeners

0:48
1:13
2:22-2:23
4:02-4:04
0:00
0:57
0:00
0:10
0:00
2:02

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