Resolution

Create tension that makes listeners yearn for a release

“That climax is such a magical moment. It just washes over me and make me feel all tingly.”

Definition

The Resolution pattern is a set of techniques that artists use to create and release musical tension. We all know tension when we hear it; this is when music feels unstable and strained and we yearn for a return to stability. But not just any V-V7-I progression will give listeners chills. Musicians need to prolong and intensify dissonant tension, and then release that tension in an unexpected and engaging way, for frisson to occur. Artistry is required. The longer tension lasts, the more intense the anticipation, the more surprising the release, and the more complete the resolution, the more likely listeners are to experience frisson.

Listen to examples 

Mechanism

When musicians use the Resolution pattern, they take advantage of our brain’s ability to anticipate abstract rewards. We all have a capability to forgo short-term tangible rewards for greater abstract rewards (i.e. delayed gratification). Researchers have confirmed that a release of musical tension is such an abstract reward that can trigger our anticipatory reward system. Musicians trigger this system in two ways. First, artists use familiar sequences to tip off listeners that a certain event is coming (e.g. the build up to a climax). Second, artists feature high-energy sounds (e.g. very loud sounds, very fast rhythms, etc.) that, in and of themselves, put us on edge. Our brain knows it takes a powerful, and therefore potentially dangerous, source to produce these extreme sounds. This makes us feel stress and yearn for the energy to dissipate. Both of these techniques can trigger our anticipatory reward system and make us yearn to hear a specific sound.

Technique #1: Use Melody to Enhance Tension

The first Resolution pattern technique involves using pitch and tuning to enhance tension. Typical diatonic cadences create strong listener expectations that we will hear a particular note (the tonic) at a particular time (after the dominant at the end of the progression). When musicians toy with this expectation by delaying the tonic or changing the register in which it sounds, this often makes the arrival of the tonic frisson-inducing.

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

  • Intentional tuning “misses”: where at the end of a conventional, well-signaled cadence, the artist hits the tonic slightly sharp or flat on purpose to prolong the tension, then quickly glides up or down to the anticipated note to satisfy listener expectations and re-assure listeners the tuning miss was intentional
  • Octave displacement on the leading tone or tonic: where at the end of a conventional progression in one register, the artist leaps up or down an octave right on the tonic or the note preceding it, then typically begins a new phrase to re-assure listeners the shift was intentional
  • Pitch bends from the dominant or leading tone: where at the end of a conventional progression featuring exclusively step-wise motion, the artists suddenly shifts to gliding motion – typically from the dominant to the tonic – in order to enhance anticipation and encourage listeners to “lean” into the expected tonic

Don’t interpret this technique as a “hack” that automatically results in chills. Just hitting the tonic out-of-tune at the end of a perfect 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 Resolution pattern.

Anecdote: Many artists pair this technique with lyrics whose meaning reinforces the upward or downward motion of the gesture. In the excerpts below, for example, artist use lyrics like “flat” (Caroline, Or Change), “high” (Tennessee Whiskey), “down” (Gravity), “night” (Kill of the Night), and “tired” (I’ve Been Loving You).

Technique #2: Use Harmony to Create Tension 

The second Resolution pattern technique involves embellishing conventional progressions to enhance tension. A diatonic cadence by definition creates some tension with dominant function. But most listeners are used to obvious ii-V-I or V-V7-I progressions. When musicians add notes and change chords to increase and intensify dissonance, this often makes the arrival of the tonic frisson-inducing.

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

  • Added dissonances to each chord in a conventional progression: clashing neighbor notes (often chromatic non-chord tones), upper extensions, or tone clusters, typically emphasized with dynamics and layered onto well-signaled cadences to re-assure listeners a release is still coming
  • Non-chord tones held across chords in a conventional progression: exposed suspensions (especially 4-3 and 9-8 suspensions), appoggiaturas, and pedal points, emphasized by sparse orchestration and simple melodies to focus listener attention on the dissonant harmonies
  • Structural dissonance through an initial “thwarted” resolution: two-part progressions where the dominant first appears as part of a deceptive cadence, half cadence or before an inverted tonic chord that delays resolution, then the sequence repeats itself but the dominant resolves to the tonic the second time

Don’t interpret this technique as a “hack” that automatically results in chills. Just adding random non-chord tones to a chord in 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 Resolution pattern.

Anecdote: Artists sometimes take suspensions to extremes. Jeff Buckley sits on the dominant for over 15 seconds at 5:56 in the famous 1993 live recording of “Hallelujah”. And the famous Tristan chord in Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde opera doesn’t truly resolve for over four and half hours until the end of the opera.

Technique #3: Use Tonality to Enhance Anticipation

The third Resolution pattern technique involves using tonal ambiguity to enhance tension. Most listeners are accustomed to diatonic music with one easily discernible tonal center and clear modulations between keys. When musicians introduce borrowed chords and notes from a different scale without fully transitioning to a new key, this can often disorient listeners and make a return to the “home” key frisson-inducing.

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

  • Modal interchange right before the end of a diatonic cadence: a borrowed chord from the parallel Mixolydian (e.g. bVI-bVII-I), minor scale (e.g. IV-iv-I), a chromatic mediant (e.g. IV-bIII-V6/4-I), or a tritone transposition (e.g. Dm-BbM-Bbm-Em-DM), typically on the chord immediately preceding the tonic
  • Chromatic pre-dominant chords that extend and enhance dominant function: especially secondary dominants and secondary leading tones, German augmented sixths, and descending circle-of-fifths progressions, emphasized with dynamics and sparse arrangements to draw listener attention to them
  • Unambiguous tonal resolution after a prolonged, tonally ambiguous sequence: e.g., in “The Long and Winding Road” by The Beatles the verse hints at both EbM and the relative Cm with seventh chords and added 9ths and 11ths, but doesn’t confirm EbM until the end of the section with a clear ii-V-I resolution

Don’t interpret this technique as a “hack” that automatically results in chills. Just inserting a chromatic pre-dominant chord before the dominant 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 Resolution pattern.

Anecdote: One of the most popular film music moments submitted to our dataset is “The Lighting of the Beacons” from Howard Shores soundtrack for the The Lord of the Rings films. The climactic moment (4:56 of 9:03), involves a triumphant return to D Dorian after 60-second chromatic sequence starting at 3:52.

Technique #4: Use Rhythm to Enhance Anticipation

The fourth Resolution pattern technique involves using rhythm and meter to enhance tension. Listeners are accustomed to music having a steady pulse and featuring simple, repetitive rhythms. Certain non-linear changes in the “pacing” of the music, and certain abrupt increases in rhythmic complexity, can create strain and prompt us to yearn for a return to a consistent pulse and coherent rhythmic motion.

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

  • Rhythmic “momentum” into a resolution: shortening rhythmic values over the course of a cadence via repeated diminution (e.g. quarter notes to eighth notes to sixteenth notes), or similarly shifting to shorter and shorter meters when nearing the end of cadence (e.g. 4/4 to 3/4 to 2/4)
  • Rhythmic “de-acceleration” into a resolution: increasingly rubato slowing of the tempo, lengthening rhythmic values via repeated augmentation, or pregnant holds on or pauses after the leading tone, typically near the end of a cadence to prolong tension and delay the arrival of the tonic as much as possible
  • Rhythmic “dissonance” prior to a resolution: typically via a sudden shift from one consistent rhythm to clashing polyrhythms (often where one is straight and one is syncopated) near the end of a progression, disorienting listeners and leading us to anticipate and yearn for the return to one rhythm on the tonic

Don’t interpret this technique as a “hack” that automatically results in chills. Just de-accelerating gradually before a climax by itself 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 Resolution pattern.

Anecdote: The song “With You” from Ghost the Musical has a dramatic, long silent pause before each chorus. This part of the piece, when performed on the British TV show The X Factor, prompted judge Simon Cowell to remark: “There is something that I call the perfect silence, which means that everyone is quiet and completely focused on you…there is just something about that moment in the song that gives me chills every time.” 

Technique #5: Use Sonic Elements to Enhance Anticipation

The fifth Resolution pattern technique involves using frequency content to enhance tension. Certain  unusual and highly unstable sounds can make listeners yearn for a release. These include various auditory illusions and texture shifts achieved with modern production techniques. The common element across these sounds is that they radically alter the amount and portions of the spectrum occupied by the music. 

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

  • Sonic illusions like Shepard tones and Shepard-Risset glissandos: slow, “noisy” glides (usually upward) that create the sensation of constantly rising pitch and never-arriving resolution, typically electronic white-noise risers or string instruments in upper registers sounded with quiet dynamics
  • Artificial accompaniment “cut-offs”: where at the end of a cadence all the timbres except the lead line are abruptly chopped so that there is no natural decay or lingering resonance, which jolts listeners and makes us anticipate the return of the “missing” timbres on the tonic 
  • Certain “high-energy” sounds: either loud, sustained inharmonic noise that makes listeners yearn for a return to harmonic pitch, or quiet, high notes above an instrument’s natural range (usually vocals or upper harmonics on strings) that make listeners yearn for a return to the normal tessitura of the instrument

Don’t interpret this technique as a “hack” that automatically results in chills. Just inserting a white-noise riser by itself 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 Resolution pattern.

Anecdote: One extreme example of this technique in action – and a popular submission to our dataset of frisson moments – are the risers the electronic group Daft Punk used in their 2013 hit “Contact”. Starting around 3:20, the first riser lasts for almost 90 seconds and then a second starts and lasts another 60 seconds.

Examples of Technique 1: Using Melody to Enhance Anticipation

Genre

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

Song

When We Were Young
Oh Comely
Everybody Talks
Cry Pretty
I’ve Been Loving You Too Long
Symphony (feat. Zara Larsson)
Mariettalied (Die tote Stadt)
Lost But Won (Rush)
Lot’s Wife (Caroline or Change)
Gravity

Artist

Adele
Neutral Milk Hotel
Neon Trees
Carrie Underwood
Otis Redding
Clean Bandit
Korngold (Renée Fleming)
Hans Zimmer
Tonya Pinkins
Sara Bareilles

Frisson Moment Flagged by Listeners

3:48-3:52
5:52-5:58
0:30-0:32
2:53-2:55
0:20-0:22
0:52-0:55
3:49
2:32-2:36
2:41-2:46
2:52-2:54

Example of Technique 2 - Use Harmony to Enhance Anticipation

Genre

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

Song

Never Really Over
Hallelujah
My Immortal
Live Like You Were Dying
The Knowing
Love Me Like You Do
Liebestod – Tristan and Isolde
Bye (Close Encounters)
Audition (The Fools Who Dream)
Mary Did You Know

Artist

Katy Perry
Jeff Buckley
Evanescence
Tim McGraw
The Weekend
Ellie Goulding
Wagner
John Williams
Justin Hurwitz
Peter Hollens

Frisson Moment Flagged by Listeners

2:33-2:35
5:55-6:12
3:05 (thwarted 2:57)
4:12-4:22
3:40-3:43
3:10-3:14
5:02-5:10
4:31-4:39
1:10 (thwarted 1:02)
2:11-2:17

Examples of Technique 3 - Use Tonality to Enhance Anticipation

Genre

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

Song

Shake It Off
Big Bird
The Long and Winding Road
Galveston
Lovin’ You
Special Place
When David Heard
Flying Over Africa (Out of Africa)
Red & Black (Les Miserables)
Never Enough

Artist

Taylor Swift
Andrew Jackson Jihad
The Beatles
Glen Campbell
Minnie Riperton
Infected Mushroom
Eric Whitacre
John Barry
Eddie Redmayne
Loren Allred

Frisson Moment Flagged by Listeners

2:42-2:45
3:11
0:39
1:52-1:56
1:15-1:20
5:50-5:58
1:49
1:32-1:48
3:58-4:12
2:30-2:35

Examples of Technique 4 - Use Rhythm to Enhance Anticipation

Genre

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

Song

Despacito
Deconstruction
Tender Surrender
Ain’t Going Down (Til’ The Sun Comes Up)
Feel The Vibe
Five Hours
Piano Concerto No. 2 – Mvt. 2
Main Title (The Matrix Reloaded)
Once There Was a Hushpuppy
Violin Concerto No. 1 – Mvt. 1

Artist

Luis Fonsi & Daddy Yankee
The Devin Townsend Project
Steve Vai
Garth Brooks
BJ the Chicago Kid
Deorro
Rachmaninoff
Don Davis
Dan Romer & Benh Zeitlin
Hilary Hahn (Mendelssohn)

Frisson Moment Flagged by Listeners

1:00-1:03
7:16
2:36-2:40
2:23
1:49-1:52
0:31-0:38
10:26-10:31
0:48-1:00
1:12-1:20
7:56-8:01

Examples of Technique 5 - Use Sonic Elements to Enhance Anticipation

Genre

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

Song

Good As Hell
Retrograde
Trains
From This Moment On
Girl On Fire
Silver
Rhapsody in Blue
Streets of Paris (Perfume)
Guns and Ships (Hamilton)
Space Chords warmup

Artist

Lizzo
James Blake
Porcupine Tree
Shania Twain
Alicia Keys
Caribou
George Gershwin
Klimek, Heil & Tykwer
Leslie Odom Jr. & Daveed Diggs
The Blue Devils

Frisson Moment Flagged by Listeners

2:05-2:08
1:35-1:38
4:40-4:47
2:56-3:00
0:41-0:44
3:23-3:30
0:05-0:07
0:33-0:38
0:27-0:31
2:06

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