Harmonicity

Mimic the acoustics of sound sources in perfect unison

 

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

The Harmonicity pattern is a set of techniques that confuse our ability to identify sound sources. Harmonicity is a property of “periodic” sounds (sounds that differ from simple noise because they vibrate consistently at multiple frequencies, or harmonics). It refers to the fact that each person and instrument tends to produce periodic sounds in which all the harmonics are perfect multiples of one fundamental frequency, i.e. part of the same harmonic series. Our ear uses harmonicity as a cue to detect and distinguish between periodic sound sources. The more abruptly you violate this natural tendency (see the five techniques below), 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 Harmonicity pattern triggers our instinctial fight-or-flight response.

The leading theory is that harmonicity confuses our auditory system for separating sounds from different sources, creating unsettling ambiguity. Harmonically-related frequency components generally come from the same sound source; human voices have slightly different fundamental frequencies and overtone resonance distributions. Our ear uses these components to, for example, distinguish the voice of a man vs. a woman or the voices of two different women. When we hear perfect harmonic alignment, however, our brain can struggle to differentiate the parts from the whole. If two musicians are perfectly aligned, our brain may be temporarily tricked into thinking there is only one instrument playing. Or if one singer manipulates formants to bring out harmonics, it can similarly confuse our brains and make it seem like there is more than one sound source. This ambiguity, it is thought, can momentarily scare us and give us chills. 

A new, emerging theory is that harmonicity produces frisson as an evolutionary reward for pro-social behavior. This perspective emphasizes that one of the primary reasons music evolved among humans was to help us form social bonds. Given that a harmonicity moment requires musicians to listen carefully and adjust to one another, its plausible that our brains began to “reward” this empathetic behavior with pleasurable chills. This view is supported by neuroscientist Matt Sachs’ recent breakthrough research that found people who get chills from music have more fibers in the part of their brain responsible for social-emotional communication. We also see anecdotal evidence for this view in conversations with choral and a cappella singers. Many singers report unforgettable moments of harmonic unison during rehearsals that helped foster a lasting kinship across their performing group.

 

Our listener data indicates that multiple vocalists achieving harmonicity during a sustained note or chord often induces frisson. The key to this method is that the significant note length allows vocalists to adjust to each other in order to find and maintain perfect harmonic alignment. It usually takes a second or two after the onset of a sustained chord for vocalists to hit each of their notes just right. Long notes or chords also enable singers to bring out overtones and achieve richer sounds. Given how sensitive our ears are to the human voice, sustained  vocal harmonic alignment is highly effective for frisson.

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

  • Sudden shifts from solo to ensemble vocals on a sustained note, typically after a prolonged passage featuring only the lead vocalist
  • Sudden alignment between a lead and backing vocalist (or two sections of a choir) after a passage where the two singers were moving in unison but not perfectly aligned

Perfect harmony isn’t a “hack” that automatically gives listeners chills. Our data suggests that when using this technique, it helps to:

  • Placement: Feature these long notes when listeners are already focused on the harmonic progression (e.g., end of a cadence, climax of a phrase) to make them as conspicuous as possible
  • Context: Precede these holds with passages that feature shorter rhythms and increasing dissonance (harmonic misalignment) to accentuate the contrast of the harmonicity moment
  • Follow-Up: Maintain alignment throughout the long note, rather than wobbling in and out of alignment repeatedly, to create space for a positive listener appraisal response

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.

Our listener data indicates that multiple vocalists or instruments changing notes several times in quick succession while moving in and out of perfect harmonic alignment often induces frisson. When done right, these passages can create a satisfying sensation of prolonged, cohesive harmonicity. Oblique motion in particular, where one voice is stationary and the other voice moves, encapsulates this approach of one sound source moving in and out of alignment with another. This method requires talented musicians to pull off, making it rare and highly effective for frisson.

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

  • Oblique motion in perfect alignment, especially harmonic drones against melodic lead lines that create fleeting, repeating moments of harmonicity (e.g. vocal traditions like Aramaic chant and instruments like bagpipes)
  • Parallel motion across a melodic line, often in vocal or instrumental duets, where the melody pauses on more consonant intervals to create and accentuate harmonicity moments
  • Polyphonic motion between vocalists or overtone-rich instruments like steel-pedal guitar, crotales, or bowed metal instruments like vibraphones that can create a “wash” of harmonicity

Harmonically-aligned counterpoint isn’t a “hack” that automatically gives listeners chills. Our data suggests that when using this technique, it helps to:

  • Placement: Place these motions at the end of a section or high point of a phrase when listeners are already focused on the harmonic motion
  • Context: Drop out the surrounding texture, or switch to a monophonic texture, to make these harmonic motions in the lead line as conspicuous as possible for listeners
  • Follow-Up: Leave rests after harmonic alignments, or reduce the texture to only the drone or bass line, to create space for a positive listener appraisal response

Our listener data indicates that polyphonic singing techniques that bring out overtones in unusual and pronounced ways often induce frisson. Global polyphonic folk traditions are a prominent and consistent trend in our dataset of listener frisson moments. While they are diverse, these traditions all bring out overtones in atypical ways to create alluring harmonicity moments. Given how rare and difficult they are, these singing techniques are highly effective for frisson.

In chills-inducing passages, some of the most reliable techniques we see composers and performers using to achieve this method include:

  • Larynx and vocal folds manipulations that create a “throat-y” sound that brings out lower overtones (e.g. Sardinian cantu e tenore or Kargyraa throat singing)
  • Throat and vocal manipulations that create a “nasal-y” sound that brings out upper overtones (e.g. Bulgarian folk music or American bluegrass)
  • Microtonal techniques and other subtle pitch adjustments away from equal temperament

Polyphonic singing isn’t a “hack” that automatically gives listeners chills. Our data suggests that when using this technique, it helps to:

  • Placement: Emulate the harmonic series by featuring closer harmonic intervals in higher registers and wider harmonic spacing in lower registers
  • Context: Surround these harmonies with sparse, percussive backing instrumentals so the drawn-out vocals occupy the majority of the frequency range and are as conspicuous as possible
  • Follow-Up: Sustain and repeat these harmonies to re-assure listeners the unusual resonances are intentional and create space for a positive listener appraisal response

Our listener data indicates that vocalists bringing out a harmonic overtone or undertone to such an extent that it is heard as a second, perfectly aligned note often induces frisson. This method is likely effective because it is often easier for a musician to achieve perfect harmonic alignment with themselves than with another performer. Even identical instruments sounding the same note (e.g. two violins or two vocalists) tend to produce slightly different overtone resonances. It’s technically difficult and rare, however, for musicians to produce and accentuate perfectly aligned harmonics, making this method highly effective for frisson.

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

  • Overtone singing where singers manipulate their vocal folds to accentuate harmonics
  • Artificial harmonics on string instruments (esp. violins and electric guitar)
  • Double-tracked vocals and arrangements featuring the same vocalist singing every part after pre-recording each part separately (e.g., Sam Robson and Peter Hollens)

Overtone singing isn’t a “hack” that automatically gives listeners chills. Our data suggests that when using this technique, it helps to:

  • Placement: Feature self-harmonization during solo sections with minimal or no accompaniment to focus listeners on the sound of the harmonicity and prevent non-acoustic distractions
  • Context: Pair self-harmonization with slow tempos, long note lengths, and minimal rhythmic complexity to make the harmonics especially conspicuous 
  • Follow-Up: Sustain and repeat self-harmonized notes throughout a melodic line to re-assure listeners and create space for a positive listener appraisal response
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.”

Our listener data indicates that certain repeated, alternating consonant intervals, especially perfect fifths and octaves, often induce frisson. This method is likely effective because it creates fleeting moments of perfect harmonic alignment between the decay of the previous note and the entrance of the next note (assuming the tuning is precise). 

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

  • Repeated, alternating fifths or octaves 
  • Rapid arpeggios with heavy reverb
  • Slow-decay timbres like piano with pedal down, guitar with added reverb, etc.

Alternating fifths aren’t a “hack” that automatically gives listeners chills. Our data suggests that when using this technique, it helps to:

  • Placement: Feature this method during song intros before a melodic and harmonic context has been established to focus listeners on the acoustics and harmonicity
  • Context: Surround these repeating intervals with reduced textures and sparse arrangements (often unaccompanied solo sections) to make them as conspicuous as possible
  • Follow-Up: Repeat and sustain these intervals to create space for a positive listener appraisal response

Technique 1 – Prolonged holds in alignment

Genre

Song

Frisson Moment Flagged By Listeners

Link

Pop

I Won’t Give Up

Jason Mraz

2:50-2:52

Alternative / Indie

Ragged Wood

Fleet Foxes

Opening 

Rock / Metal

Dead and Done

Brothers McCann

3:50-3:55

Dance / Electronic

Wicked Game

Ursine Vulpine

3:08

Hip-Hop / R&B

xxx

xxx

xxx

Country / Folk

Remind Me

Brad Paisley

3:22-3:25

Classical

Marie Theres’! (Der Rosenkavalier)

Strauss

3:35-3:38

Film Music

Into the Unknown (Frozen 2

Idina Menzel & AURORA

2:48-2:49

Soundtracks

Take Me Or Leave Me (Rent)

Idina Menzel & Tracie Thomas

3:37-3:40

Other

Wedding Song (There Is Love)

Noel Paul Stookey

0:59

Technique 2 – Contrapuntal motion while maintaining alignment

Genre

Song

Frisson Moment Flagged By Listeners

Link

Pop

Imagine

Pentatonix

From 3:24 

Alternative / Indie

Holocene

Bon Iver

From 1:13

Rock / Metal

The Sound of Silence

Simon & Garfunkel

0:24-0:26

Dance / Electronic

Leon On

Major Lazer

From 0:30

Hip-Hop / R&B

xxx

xxx

xxx

Country / Folk

Amazing Grace

Judy Collins

From 1:57

Classical

Here and Heaven

Yo-Yo Ma & Stuart Duncan

From 0:40

Film Music

xxx

xxx

xxx

Soundtrack

Ashokan Farewell (The Civil War)

Jay Unger

From 3:08

Other

Creep 

Carrie Manolakos (Radiohead)

2:40-2:52 (lead and backing vocals)

Technique 3 – Atypical harmonic resonances

Genre

Song

Frisson Moment Flagged By Listeners

Link

Pop

Don’t Leave

Ane Brun

From 0:48

Alternative / Indie

Fare Thee Well (Dink’s Song)

Oscar Isaac & Marcus Mumford

0:59

Rock / Metal

Wuthering Heights

Kate Bush

From 0:08

Dance / Electronic

Invincible (feat. iDA HAWK)

Big Wild

0:38-0:39

Hip-Hop / R&B

BLOOD.

Kendrick Lamar

From opening

Country / Folk

One Loaf of Bread

Dave Evans

4:02-4:04

Classical

Schemodzakhili

Georgian Polyphonic Singing

From 0:08

Film Music

S’Rothe Zauerili (The Grand Budapest Hotel)

Ose Schuppel

From 0:10

Soundtrack

Jisas Yu Holem Bling (The Thin Red Line)

Choir of All Saints (Honaira)

From opening

Other

Cantu e tenore

Sardinian Polyphonic Singing

From 1:57

Technique 4 – Self-harmonization

Genre

Song

Frisson Moment Flagged By Listeners

Link

Pop

Havana (feat. Young Thug)

Camila Cabello

0:48-0:50 (double-tracked)

Alternative / Indie

Bride

San Fermin

1:01-1:03 (double-tracked)

Rock / Metal

Life On Mars

David Bowie

1:20 (double-tracked)

Dance / Electronic

Divine Moments of Truth

Shpongle

From 1:22

Hip-hop / R&B

Something

Snarky Puppy & Lalah Hathaway

From 6:10

Country / Folk

How Great Thou Art

Sam Robson

From 3:40

Classical

Violin Concerto Op. 47

Sibelius (Mutter)

From 4:02 (artificial harmonics)

Soundtracks

The Beautiful Steppe (Marco Polo)

Batzorig Vaanchig

1:19-1:29 

Other

Skinny Love

University of Michigan G-Men

0:04-0:23 

Other

Unchained Melody

Michael Yung

0:14-0:20

Technique 5 – Repeated alternating harmonic intervals

Genre

Song

Frisson Moment Flagged By Listeners

Link

Pop

Where The Streets Have No Name

U2

From 0:10

Alternative / Indie

One Big Holiday

My Morning Jacket

From 0:20

Rock / Metal

Baba O’Riley

The Who

Opening

Dance / Electronic

Cheerleader (Felix Jaehn Remix)

Omi

From 1:12

Hip-Hop / R&B

xxx

xxx

xxx

Country / Folk

Walking In Memphis

Marc Cohn

Opening

Classical

Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major – Prelude

Bach (Yo-Yo Ma)

Opening

Film Music

Ava (Ex Machina)

Ben Salisbury & Geoff Barrow

From 0:51

Soundtracks

We Know The Way (Moana)

Opetaia Foa’i & Lin-Manuel Miranda

From 0:27

Other

Diva Dance (The Fifth Element)

DisneyDiva7

1:27-1:39

Listens to thousands more examples in our Library