Paradox

Fulfill and violate a listener expectation at the same time

“Hearing that theme come back in minor on those horns is just flat out goosebump-y.”

Definition

When an artist gives a listener contradictory information, making the music familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. This takes two forms: sounding elements that are inherently contradictory (e.g., simultaneous close and distant sounds), or making an element introduced earlier in a song sound suddenly strange (e.g., a theme previously in major played in minor). Listeners tend to use terms like “uncanny” and “hauntingly beautiful” to describe the resulting sensation. A paradox has to contribute to the flow of a song for frisson to occur. If an artist makes the music too strange or creates too many contradictions, this will just exhaust listeners. There is a fine line between a paradox that is chills-inducing vs. disorienting; artistry is required.

Listen to examples below 

Mechanism

When musicians use the  Paradox pattern, they take advantage of the brain’s default tendency to avoid uncertainty. Ambiguous situations, because they are open to multiple interpretations, require individuals to spend more energy preparing for each possible interpretation. If we suddenly encounter an ambiguous situation (in life or in music), our brain sometimes defensively panics and elicit a fear response to motivate us to escape the situation. Sounds that are ambiguous or “creepy” tend to work best for eliciting this anxious uncertainty with music. Recent findings from robotics (i.e. the “uncanny valley” effect where ambiguous human-like robots with one prominent non-human feature like black eyes are much scarier than unambiguous robots with no human features) and psychology (i.e. that the essence of the concept of creepiness is unpredictability) back up this musical trend. 

Listen to examples below 

Technique #1: Sonic Paradox

The first Paradox technique involves contradictory frequency content and certain strange timbres. In chills-inducing passages, the most reliable ways we see artists achieve this technique are:

  • Simultaneous close and distant sounds: where an artist introduces two contradictory versions of a sound, one we perceive as “close” and another we perceive as “distant”, for example muted vs. unmuted instruments, close-miked vs. reverb-heavy vocals, or on-stage vs. off-stage instruments in live settings
  • “Perfect” oscillators: when an artist suddenly introduces a theramin, Hammond organ, ondes Martenot, vocador, vibes with motor on, or similar electronic timbre, which all produce perfectly (and unnaturally) consistent vibrations with no decay that sound strange to listeners used to imperfect acoustic resonance
  • Certain vocal distortions: when an artist uses production tools or singing techniques to make a voice resonate in a way that does not occur naturally and sounds strange, including overtone singing, auto-tune, “chopped and screwed” editing, formant shifting, or wordless humming choir

Don’t interpret this technique as a “hack” that automatically results in chills. Just sounding the melody on a theremin won’t work by itself. Whether listeners experience frisson depends on the contrast in timbres and how well the strange sounds fit into the melodic flow. 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.

Listen to examples below 

Technique #2: Harmonic Paradox

The second Paradox technique involves defamiliarizing functional harmony and certain strange textures. In chills-inducing passages, the most reliable ways we see artists achieve this technique are:

  • Contradictory chord changes: where an artist moves between two chords made up of the same notes but with different voicings (e.g. Cmaj7-Emb6), or between certain consonant triads a major third apart, creating contrary half-step motion that makes the second triad “feel” strangely dissonant (I-bVI, I-III, I-bvi)
  • Contradictory resolutions: where instead of the tonic after the dominant, an artist features a clashing polychord (e.g. major and minor tonic chords on top of each other) or certain chromatic modulations (V-#III, V-bIII, V-#VII, V-#VI, V-#IV, V-#I) that simultaneously deliver and undermine harmonic closure
  • Contradictory counterpoint: where an artist features sustained oblique motion in which one voice sounds changing notes and rhythms while a counter-voice repeats one rhythm on one note, creating a clashing sensation of the music both moving and staying in place at the same time
Don’t interpret this technique as a “hack” that automatically results in chills. Just inserting a I-bVI shift into a progression won’t work by itself. Whether listeners experience frisson depends on how these paradoxes are integrated into the flow of a piece. 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.

Listen to examples below 

Technique #3: Tonal Paradox

The third Paradox technique involves undermining tonal centers and featuring unusual scales. In chills-inducing passages, the most reliable ways we see artists achieve this technique are:

  • Two simultaneous tonal centers: when an artist features two players or sections unambiguously playing in different keys (bi-tonality), or features a texture where the harmony implies one key but the melody hints at a “phantom” key by omitting or shifting key scale degrees like the root or the 3rd 
  • Music that seems tonal but isn’t: where an artist creates tonal disorientation by featuring non-centric motion, including certain chromatic oscillations (e.g. I-bV-I-bV), “non-functional” cycles (e.g. chains of augmented sixths), symmetric scales (e.g. whole tone scale), or certain modal sequences (e.g. Arvo Part’s tintinnabuli)
  • “Exotic” tonal centers: when an artist features a non-standard scale that defamiliarizes the standard major and harmonic minor scales, including certain microtonal traditions (e.g. Arab maqam, Indonesian Pelog, Bulgarian diaphone) and unusual modes (e.g., Phrygian, Melodic minor, Lydian augmented)

Don’t interpret this technique as a “hack” that automatically results in chills. Just featuring the Pelog scale won’t work by itself. Whether listeners experience frisson depends on the preceding context and the balance between harmonic motion vs. tonal instability in these passagesArtistry 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.

Listen to examples below 

Technique #4: Rhythmic Paradox

The fourth Paradox technique involves undermining rhythmic consistency and symmetry. In chills-inducing passages, the most reliable ways we see artists achieve this technique are:

  • Clashing polyrhythms: when an artist layers a rhythm with even sub-divisions against one with odd sub-divisions, a straight rhythm against a syncopated counter-rhythm, a staggered echo against an original rhythm, or features rhythmic “gating” that shifts the pulse by slowly adding notes and beats
  • Asymmetric meters: where an artist features a time signature that breaks bars into uneven mixtures of two and three-part beat divisions (e.g., 5/8, 7/16, 7/4); listeners typically experience frisson at the start of a piece with an uneven meter or when it is featured mid-phrase after a section with a steady, symmetric beat
  • Constantly shifting rhythmic emphasis: where an artist inconsistently varies the meter, moves in and out of syncopation, or alters the pace of chord changes, all of which can result in unbalanced phrasing that creates a certain “off-kilter” and “out-of-balance” feel that prevents listeners from finding a steady pulse

Don’t interpret this technique as a “hack” that automatically results in chills. Just featuring a section in 5/8 won’t work by itself. Whether listeners experience frisson depends on the amount of contrast, and how well the rhythmic ambiguity is fit into the melodic flow. 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.

Listen to examples below 

Technique #5: Melodic Paradox

The fifth Paradox technique involves defamiliarizing a familiar song or theme. In chills-inducing passages, the most reliable ways we see artists achieve this technique are:

  • Transformative covers and variations: where an artist alters the arrangement, tempo, harmony, or rhythms around a melody so that the exact same notes convey new and different emotional content (Note: Qbrio cannot currently recognize this technique because it requires context outside a song) 

Don’t interpret this technique as a “hack” that automatically results in chills. Just covering a song by flipping the mode won’t work by itself. Whether listeners experience frisson depends on the balance between changing too little (boring) and too much (blatant) of the original melody. Artistry is required. Consult the Frisson 101 and Library pages for tips and examples on how other artists have used this technique.

Examples of Technique 1 - Sonic Paradox

Genre

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

Song

Issues
Alaska
Aqueous Transmission
Hard to Forget
IV. Sweatpants
Take U There (feat. Kiesza)
Scene D’Amour
Moon Walk (First Man)
Nautilus (Mysterious Island)
Chinggis khaanii Magtaal

Artist

Julia Michaels
Maggie Rogers
Incubus
Sam Hunt
Childish Gambino
Skrillex, Jack U, Diplo
Berard Herrmann
Justin Hurwitz
Bernard Herrmann
Batzorig Vaanchig

Frisson Moment Reported By Listeners

1:57-2:00
0:00-0:03
4:32-4:37
0:15-0:18
0:46-0:49
1:22-1:25
3:05-3:08
0:00-0:05
0:09-0:12
3:41-3:51

Examples of Technique 2 - Harmonic Paradox

Genre

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

Song

Take A Chance On Me
The Apocalypse Song
Eleventh Earl of Mar
Air
Drop It Low
Invincible (feat. iDA HAWK)
Also Sprach Zarathustra
The Axiom (Wall-E)
Main Title (House of Cards)
Uninvited

Artist

ABBA
St. Vincent
Genesis
Talking Heads
Ester Dean
Big Wild
Richard Strauss
Thomas Newman
Jeff Beal
Rutgers Shockwave (Alanis Morissette)

Frisson Moment Reported By Listeners

0:01-0:04
0:25-0:28
0:35-0:37
1:06-1:09
2:24-2:27
0:37-0:40
0:26-0:28
0:38-0:42
0:49-0:52
1:40-1:43

Examples of Technique 3 - Tonal paradox

Genre

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

Song

Head Over Heels
Found You
How To Disappear Completely
The Rubber Room
Sky Fall
Happy Cycling
L’Histoire du soldat – Part 1.1
Main Title (To Kill A Mockingbird)
Main Title (The Matrix)
Rivendell (Lord of the Rings)

Artist

Tears for Fears
Django Django
Radiohead
Porter Wagoner
Travis Scott, Young Thug
Boards of Canada
Stravinsky
Elmer Bernstein
Don Davis
Howard Shore

Frisson Moment Reported By Listeners

0:00-0:10
1:21-1:31
5:03-5:23
2:16-2:26
0:00-0:18
5:16-5:24
0:50-1:00
0:21-0:33
0:06-0:18
0:21

Examples of Technique 4 - Create a Rhythmic Paradox

Genre

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

Song

Solsbury Hill
Pyramid Song
Lateralus
The Git Up
Numbers On The Board
Strobe
Short Ride In a Fast Machine
Imhotep (The Mummy)
Tubular Bells
Lingus

Artist

Peter Gabriel
Radiohead
Tool
Blanco Brown
Pusha T
deadmau5
John Adams
Jerry Goldsmith
Mike Oldfield
Snarky Puppy

Frisson Moment Reported By Listeners

0:58-1:03
0:01-0:11
5:36-5:39
0:18-0:23
0:04-0:07
5:32-5:37
0:14-0:18
0:31-0:34
1:38-1:41
8:15-8:18

Examples of Technique 5: Melodic Paradox

Genre

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

Song

All I Want For Christmas Is You
Halo
Sound of Silence
Hurt
I Got 5 On It – Tethered Mix
Adagio for Strings
Goldberg Variation #1
Once Upon A Dream (Maleficent)
Survivor
Smells Like Teen Spirit

Artist

Chase Holfelder (Mariah Carey)
LP (Beyoncé)
Disturbed (Simon & Garfunkel)
Johnny Cash (Nine Inch Nails)
Michael Abels (Luniz, Michael Marshall)
Tiësto (Barber)
Bach (on original Aria)
Lana Del Rey (Disney)
2WEI (Destiny’s Child)
J.S. Ondara (Nirvana)

Frisson Moment Reported By Listeners

1:57
1:45
3:04
0:12
0:28
1:25
0:00
0:19
0:57
1:25

Listens to more examples in the Qbrio Library