Harmonicity

Mimic the acoustics of multiple sound sources in perfect unison

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

Definition

A set of techniques to create sounds whose frequency components fit perfectly into one harmonic series. Every voice and instrument – even two pianos sounding the same note – tends to resonate at a slightly different fundamental frequency (e.g., A4 at 440.3 Hz vs. 441.5 Hz) and vary in the harmonic overtones it produces (a harmonic is a perfect integer multiple of the fundamental, e.g. 880.4 Hz is an even 2x multiple of 440.2 Hz). When musicians sound two notes that form a consonant interval, each have rich harmonics, and whose fundamentals and harmonics are all integer multiples (i.e. harmonicity), this often results in frisson. The more abrupt and sustained harmonic alignment is, the more likely listeners are to experience chills.

Listen to examples below 

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: Adjustment into alignment during a held chord

Listen to examples below 

The first Harmonicity technique involves musicians adjusting to each other and achieving perfect alignment during a held chord. In chills-inducing passages, the most reliable ways we see artists pull this off are:

  • Chord voicings mirroring the order of the harmonic series: where an artist features a chord built around octave and perfect fifth intervals and arranges the voicings from lowest to highest to mirror the order of the overtones in the harmonic series (e.g., octaves in lower voices, 3rds in upper voices, etc.)
  • Perfectly-tuned close harmonies: where an artist features sustained chords with tight voicings built around 3rds and 6ths in the same octave, typically with the lead melody in the middle voice and the chord placed at the end of a well-signaled progression or peak of a phrase to focus listeners on the harmonies
  • Voices and voice-like winds instruments: where an artist features overtone-rich timbres conducive to perfect alignment, including singing voices (usually a cappella or with minimal accompaniment) or certain reed instruments like the saxophone, clarinet, and oboe (fipple winds like the flute are 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 by itself. Artistry is required in the set-up, follow-up, and execution. Consult the Frisson 101 page for tips on how other artists have used this technique.

Technique #2: Contrapuntal motion in perfect alignment

Listen to examples below 

The second Harmonicity technique involves two or more voices moving in unison in perfect harmonic alignment. In chills-inducing passages, the most reliable ways we see artists pull this off are:

  • Parallel motion in perfect alignment: where two talented players move through a melodic phrase in perfect unison with perfect tuning, typically separated by 3rd, 4ths, or 5ths and pausing on highly resonant intervals or vowels (when featured on vocals) that help the singers bring out rich harmonics
  • Oblique and contrary motion into and out of alignment: where either a lead line moves in and out of harmonic intervals against a bass line drone on the tonic, or where two independent lines pass through harmonic intervals from different directions, in both cases creating fleeting moments of perfect alignment
  • Timbres with rich harmonics: where an artist features certain timbres like singers, strings, or wind instruments in upper registers that are conducive to harmonic alignment via counterpoint, typically paired with sparse arrangements and slow tempos that help the players adjust to each other’s tuning 
Don’t interpret this technique as a “hack” that automatically results in chills. Just having a back-up singer harmonize a third above 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 this technique.

Technique #3: Certain repeated, alternating intervals

Listen to examples below 

The third Harmonicity technique involves repetitive sequences through the intervals of a harmonic series. In chills-inducing passages, the most reliable ways we see artists pull this off are:

  • Alternating perfect 4ths, 5ths, and octaves: where a musician moves repeatedly between two perfectly-tuned notes separated by one of the first three intervals of the harmonic series, varying the rhythm and note length across repetitions to draw listener attention to the harmonic resonance
  • Certain repeating arpeggios: where an artist features rapid, arpeggiated chords with added reverb and voicings mirroring the order of the harmonic series (e.g. octaves and fifths at the bottom, fourths and third on top), typically at the start of a song before listeners have anchored on any melodic movement
  • Slow-decay timbres: where an artist features repeating harmonic intervals on certain highly reverberant instruments that cause the delay of each note to bleed into the onset of the next, including steel-pedal guitar, crotales, piano with pedal down, harp, acoustic guitar with amp, or vocals with added reverb
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 by itself. Artistry is required in the set-up, follow-up, and execution. Consult the Frisson 101 page for tips on how other artists have used this technique.

Technique #4: Atypical harmonic resonance

Listen to examples below 

The fourth Harmonicity technique involves various ways to bring out harmonic overtones and make them more prominent in a sound. In chills-inducing passages, the most reliable ways we see artists pull this off are:

  • Certain belting techniques: where a vocalist uses the first and second formants to boost higher-level harmonics and create a more nasal, “metallic” sound, including Bulgarian “open throat” singing, “edge” in American bluegrass, or squillo in classical opera singing
  • Overtone singing: where an artist uses the second and third formants to accentuate one higher-level harmonic to such an extent that it is heard a second pitch independent of the fundamental, for example Tuvaan khomeii singing or Western polyphonic overtone singing
  • Undertone singing: where a vocalist narrows their larynx and causes their vestibular folds (the “false” vocal chords) to resonate at a subharmonic an octave below the fundamental pitch that the vocal chords are sounding, for example Tuvaan throat singing or the bassu voice in Sardinian cantu e tenore 
Don’t interpret this technique as a “hack” that automatically results in chills. Just having a lead vocalist switch to belting voice on the chorus won’t work by itself. Artistry is required in the set-up, follow-up, and execution. Consult the Frisson 101 page for tips on how other artists have used this technique.

Technique #5: Self-harmonization

Listen to examples below 

The fifth Harmonicity technique involves artists sounding multiple independent notes on one sound source simultaneously. In chills-inducing passages, the most reliable ways we see artists pull this off are:

  • Multi-tracked or over-dubbed vocals: where an artist records themselves separately playing or singing each part in a harmony, or when producers make copies of a track and pitch the new versions up or down so that they “harmonize” with the original
  • Multiphonic techniques: where an artist simultaneously sounds two independent notes at the same time (i.e. one is not an overtone of the other), including biphonic singing where vocalist resonates one note with their lips or cheeks and one note with their vocal chords, or musicians using embouchure and circular breathing to make wind instruments sound multiple notes at the same time (e.g. didgeridoo players)
  • Artificial harmonics: where a musician sounds two notes on one string instrument by pressing down separately on the neck and node of one string (as opposed to natural harmonics from gently pressing one node of an open string), typically on violin or electric guitar during a slow, exposed sequence 
Don’t interpret this technique as a “hack” that automatically results in chills. Just featuring a passage with loud pinch harmonics on electric guitar won’t work by itself. Artistry is required in the set-up, follow-up, and execution. Consult the Frisson 101 page for tips on how other artists have used this technique.

Examples of Technique 1: Aligned Chords

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
Go Rest High On That Mountain
Better Now
Wicked Game
Marie Theres! (Der Rosenkavalier)
Know Who You Are (Moana)
Take Me Or Leave Me (Rent)
715 – Creeks (live)

Artist

Jason Mraz
Fleet Foxes
Brothers McCann
Vince Gill
Post Malone
Ursine Vulpine
Richard Strauss
Auli’i Cravalho & Opetaia Foa’i
Idina Menzel & Tracie Thomas
The Nor’Easters

Frisson Moment Reported by Listeners

2:50-2:52
0:00
3:50-3:55
1:10
3:31
3:08
3:35-3:38
0:21
3:37-3:40
5:46-5:48

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

You Need To Calm Down
Royals
The Sound of Silence
Remind Me
End of the Road
Lean On
Spem in Alium
Into the Unknown (Frozen 2)
Ashokan Farewell (The Civil War)
Creep (live)

Artist

Taylor Swift
Lorde
Simon & Garfunkel
Brad Paisley & Carrie Underwood
Boys II Men
Major Lazer
Thomas Tallis
Idina Menzel, AURORA
Jay Unger
Carrie Manolakos (Radiohead)

Frisson Moment Reported by Listeners

0:44-0:48
0:23-0:28
0:22-0:26
3:22-3:25
5:27-5:35
0:28-0:36
7:43-7:57
2:48
3:07-3:12
2:52

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
Where The Streets Have No Name
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
U2
Marc Cohn
H.E.R.
Eric Prydz
Bach (Yo-Yo Ma)
Ben Salisbury & Geoff Barrow
Opetaia Foa’i & Lin-Manuel Miranda
DisneyDiva7

Frisson Moment Reported by Listeners

1:12
0:20
0:41
0:00
0:00
3:09
0:00
0:50-1:00
0:27-0:32
1:36-1:39

Examples of Technique 4 - Atypical harmonic resonances

Genre

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

Song

Don’t Leave
Familiar
Baba O’Riley
One Loaf of Bread
BLOOD.
Invincible
Pilentze Pee
S’Rothe Zauerili (Grand Budapest Hotel)
God Yu Tekem Laef Blong Mi (Thin Red Line)
Cantu e tenore

Artist

Ane Brun
Agnes Obel
The Who
Dave Evans
Kendrick Lamar
Big Wild
Bulgarian State Female Choir
Ose Schuppel
Choir of All Saints (Honaira)
Sardinian Polyphonic Singing

Frisson Moment Reported by Listeners

0:48
1:19
0:00
4:02
0:00
0:37
0:00
0:10
0:00
2:02

Examples of Technique 5 - 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?
Holocene
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
Bon Iver
Snarky Puppy
Shpongle
Sibelius (Mutter)
Batzorig Vaanchig
University of Michigan G-Men
Sam Robson

Frisson Moment Reported by Listeners

0:48
1:01
1:20
1:14
6:10
1:28
4:02
1:19-1:29
0:04-0:23
4:03

Listens to more examples in the Qbrio Library