Resolution

Create tension that makes listeners yearn for a release

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

The Resolution pattern is a set of techniques for creating and releasing musical tension (instability and strain).  The longer tension persists, and the more intense it becomes, the stronger our desire for a release. But simply releasing tension is not enough to give listeners chills. First, frisson requires that you build tension in such a way that listeners can tell a resolution is coming; you need to cultivate anticipation. Second, frisson requires that either the timing and/or the structure of the release itself needs to be surprising and engaging. The greater the tension, the more heightened the anticipation, the more unexpected the resolution, and the more complete the release, the more likely listeners are to experience frisson. 

Note: The five methods below are not mutually exclusive and tend to be used simultaneously. 

The Resolution pattern can trigger our fight-or-flight response by taking advantage of the brain’s capability to anticipate abstract rewards.

We all have a neural “reward system” (what neuroscientists call the striatal dopaminergic system) that motivates us to pursue tangible rewards like food and reproduction. Its theorized that we later evolved a capability to forgo tangible rewards for greater abstract rewards because long-term planning and delayed gratification helped our evolutionary ancestors survive. Researchers have confirmed that a release of musical tension is such an abstract prize that can trigger our reward system. In a famous frisson study, neuroscientists Robert Zatorre and Valerie Salimpoor found that two different parts of your brain’s reward system release dopamine, one in anticipation of peak moments in music (caudate) and one during the peak moments themselves (nucleaus accumbens). They describe this finding as follows:

“The anticipatory phase, set off by temporal cues signaling that a potentially pleasurable auditory sequence is coming, can trigger expectations of euphoric emotional states and create a sense of wanting and reward prediction. This reward is entirely abstract and may involve such factors as suspended expectations and a sense of resolution. Indeed, composers and performers frequently take advantage of such phenomena, and manipulate emotional arousal by violating expectations in certain ways or by delaying the predicted outcome… to heighten the motivation for completion. The peak emotional response evoked by hearing the desired sequence would represent the consummatory or liking phase, representing fulfilled expectations and accurate reward prediction.”

Acoustic tension, the thing that is resolved, generally emerges from sounds that require significant energy to sustain (very fast rhythms, very loud passages, very dissonant intervals, very high pitches, etc.). Its theorized that because a powerful, and therefore potentially dangerous, sound source is required to generate a high-energy sound, we’ve developed a heightened sensitivity to acoustic tension.

Our listener data indicates that certain melodic devices often create sufficient anticipatory tension to induce frisson. These techniques manipulate pitch and phrasing to telegraph and delay expected notes, thereby prolonging tension and heightening anticipation.

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

  • Intentional tuning “misses”, for example hitting the tonic slightly sharp or flat at the end of a cadence then quickly moving to the expected pitch
  • Exposed holds on non-chord tones, for example prolonged appoggiaturas 
  • Shifts from step-wise to gliding motion, for example a glissando from the dominant or a pitch bend from the leading tone to the tonic 

These techniques aren’t “hacks” that automatically give listeners chills.. Our data suggests that when using this technique, it helps to:

  • Use this method on lead vocals (often shifting technique, for example chest voice to belting) or string instruments in high register
  • Keep the other musical elements (orchestration, progression, etc.) simple and conventional to make the melodic deviations conspicuous for listeners
  • Increase note length when you alter the melodic line in order to re-assure listeners the deviation is intentional and leave space for a positive appraisal response

Anecdote: Many artists couple this technique with lyrics that reinforce the meaning of the gesture. In the playlist below, for example, artists use lyrics “flat” (Caroline, Or Change), “high” (Tennessee Whiskey), “down” (Gravity), “night” (Kill of the Night), “tired” (I’ve Been Loving You Too Long), all of which reinforce the upward or downward motion respectively.

Our listener data indicates that certain harmonic devices often create enough anticipatory tension to induce frisson. These techniques enhance dissonant tension in conventional progressions while still signaling (and eventually delivering) a release, thereby cultivating anticipation.

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

  • Prolonged sequences over held non-chord tones, for example dissonant pedal points and suspensions
  • Conventional progressions featuring added dissonances, for example highly dissonant neighbor notes, upper extensions, and clusters
  • Extended sequences featuring an initial “thwarted” resolution, for example two-part sequences where the dominant initially appears but is followed by a deceptive cadence, half cadence or inverted tonic chord, then the sequence repeats and the dominant finally resolves to the tonic

Don’t interpret this to mean that any instance of added non-chord tones is guaranteed to give listeners chills. Our data suggests that when using this technique, it helps to:

  • Keep the other elements of the music simple and conventional (line cliches, perfect authentic cadences, etc.) to make the harmonic deviation as conspicuous as possible
  • Highlight non-chord tones in upper voices while maintaining stable, spread triads in lower voices to ensure the dissonance adds color but doesn’t fully mask the chords
  • Increase dissonance and note length over the course of a cadence to re-assure listeners the deviations are intentional and increase the chances of a positive listener appraisal response
  • Use note length, dynamics, and texture to make an earlier “aborted” cadence as conspicuous as possible
  • Follow earlier “aborted” cadences or unfulfilled resolutions immediately with simple, conventional progressions that quickly resolve (e.g. ii-V-I) to prevent listeners from beginning to doubt whether the tonic will ever arrive

Anecdote: Artists sometimes take suspensions to an extreme when trying to delay resolution and prolong tension. Jeff Buckley sits on the dominant for over 15 seconds in the “Hallelujah” moment in the playlist below. And the famous Tristan chord in Wagern’s Tristan and Isolde doesn’t truly resolve for over four and half hours until the final scene of the opera.

Our listener data indicates that certain tonal techniques often create enough anticipatory tension to induce frisson. These techniques center around borrowed chords and notes from other scales that increase tension and temporarily disorient listeners, making the return to the tonic in the original scale especially effective. 

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

  • Modal interchange or chromaticism right before the tonic, for example borrowed chords from the parallel Mixolydian (e.g. bVI-bVII-I), minor scale, (e.g. IV-iv-I), chromatic mediants (e.g. IV-bIII-V6/4-I) or tritonal transpositions (e.g. Dm-BbM-Bbm-Em-DM)
  • Unambiguous resolution after a tonally ambiguous section, for example in “The Long and Winding Road” the verse hints at both EbM and the relative Cm with various seventh chords and added 9ths and 11ths, but doesn’t confirm EbM until ending the section with a clear ii-V-I 
  • Chromatic and inverted pre-dominant chords, for example secondary dominants, secondary leading tones, German augmented sixths, descending circle-of fifths progressions, and cadential 6-4 chords, all of which extend and enhance dominant function

Don’t interpret this to mean that any instance of added non-chord tones is guaranteed to give listeners chills. Our data suggests that when using this technique, it helps to:

  • Keep the other elements of the music simple and conventional (line cliches, perfect authentic cadences, etc.) to make the harmonic deviation as conspicuous as possible
  • Highlight non-chord tones in upper voices while maintaining stable, spread triads in lower voices to ensure the dissonance adds color but doesn’t fully mask the chords
  • Increase dissonance and note length over the course of a cadence to re-assure listeners the deviations are intentional and increase the chances of a positive listener appraisal response

Anecdote: Artists sometimes take suspensions to an extreme when trying to delay resolution and prolong tension. Jeff Buckley sits on the dominant for over 15 seconds in the “Hallelujah” moment in the playlist below. And the famous Tristan chord in Wagern’s Tristan and Isolde doesn’t truly resolve for over four and half hours until the final scene of the operafor

Our listener data indicates that certain rhythmic techniques often create enough anticipatory tension to induce frisson. These techniques manipulate the complexity and pacing of musical movement to create “rhythmic dissonance” that leads listeners to yearn for and anticipate a release.

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

  • Rhythmic “momentum” into a resolution, for example increasing rhythmic diminution or shifts to shorter and shorter meters
  • Rhythmic “de-acceleration” into a resolution, for example rubato slow-downs or increasing rhythmic augmentation 
  • Intensified rhythmic “dissonance” prior to a resolution, for example sudden shifts to clashing polyrhythms near the end of a progression (often contrasting syncopated and unsyncopated lines) that then dissipate on the tonic

Don’t interpret this to mean that simply de-accelerating during a cadence will always give listeners chills. Our data suggests that when using this technique, it helps to:

  • Use this method sparingly, at most once in a piece, given how attention-grabbing it is
  • Create non-linear movement, either in the tempo or the rhythm, to contrast with the typically linear movement of the harmonies in progressions that work with this method
  • End these progressions with a clear resolution to the tonic, often embellished with dynamics and the return of a steady tempo and rhythm, to provide closure and space for a positive listener appraisal response

Anecdote: Rhythmic dissonance

Our listener data indicates that certain timbral and textural techniques often create sufficient anticipatory tension to induce frisson. These techniques create high-energy sounds that that are difficult to sustain; this leads audiences to increasingly anticipate their resolution.

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

  • Noisy, inharmonic sweeps paired with gradual crescendos, for example white-noise risers, orchestral glissandos, and swells on inharmonic percussion instruments like cymbals and tam-tam
  • Temporary, partial texture drop-outs, for example the sudden removal of low frequencies and bass line accompaniment near the end of a cadence, which then makes listeners anticipate their return on the tonic
  • Extended holds in the upper range of a voice or instrument paired with quiet dynamics, for example using extended techniques on string instruments to increase strain

Don’t interpret this to mean that every time you introduce a new vocalist on the tonic listeners will experience chills. Our data suggests that when using this technique, it helps to:

  • Use this method once, either at the beginning or end of a song, given how pronounced it is
  • Keep the preceding harmonic progression, voice leading, and tempo consistent and conventional to make the timbral shift as conspicuous as possible
  • Increase the note length on the tonic and either leave a couple of beats of rest before the melody restarts, or bring back a familiar theme, to create stability and space for a positive listener appraisal response
  • talk about lull from Taylor swift song to prepare the frequency explosio
Anecdote: The song “With You” from Ghost the Musical is a popular submission to our dataset of listener frisson moments. The piece has a relatively conventional chord progression, but it has a heavily exposed hold and dramatic pause before the choruses. This part of the song prompted famous judge Simon Cowell to remark during one particularly stirring cover of the piece on the TV program The X Factor: “There is something that I call the perfect silence, which means that is everyone is quiet and completely focused on you…there is just something about that song that gets me every time.”

Technique 1 – Use Melody to Enhance Anticipation

Genre

Song

Frisson Moment Flagged By Listeners

Link

Pop

Gravity

Sara Bareilles

2:52-2:54

Alternative / Indie

Oh Comely

Neutral Milk Hotel

5:52-5:58

Rock / Metal

Everybody Talks

Neon Trees

0:30-0:32

Hip-Hop / R&B

I’ve Been Loving You Too Long

Otis Redding

0:20-0:22

Dance / Electronic

Coffee

Sylvan Esso

3:38-3:41

Country / Folk

Cry Pretty

Carrie Underwood

2:53-2:55

Classical

Rhapsody in Blue

Gershwin

0:05-0:07

Film Music

Lost But Won

Hans Zimmer

2:32-2:36

Soundtracks

Lot’s Wife (Caroline or Change)

Tonya Pinkins

2:41-2:46

Other

Four Women

Nina Simone

4:08-4:12

Technique 2 – Use Harmonic Elements to Enhance Anticipation

Genre

Song

Frisson Moment Flagged By Listeners

Link

Pop

Never Really Over

Katy Perry

2:33-2:35

Alternative / Indie

Hallelujah (live)

Jeff Buckley

5:55-6:12

Rock / Metal

My Immortal

Evanescence

2:55-3:10

Hip-Hop / R&B

The Knowing

The Weeknd

3:40-3:43

Dance / Electronic

Love Me Like You Do

Ellie Goulding

3:10-3:14

Country / Folk

Live Like You Were Dying

Tim McGraw

4:12-4:22

Classical

Liebestod

Wagner

4:52-5:10

Film Music

Bye (Close Encounters)

John Williams

4:31-4:39

Soundtrack

Audition (The Fools Who Dream) (La La Land)

Justin Hurwitz

1:10 (after vi7 feint at 1:02)

Other

Mary Did You Know

Peter Hollens

2:11-2:15

Other

The Ecstasy of Gold

Ennio Morricone

2:06 (after feint at 1:55)

Other

Serenity (Arr. E. Wilson)

Ola Gjeilo

2:56-3:00 (added dissonance)

Other

With A Lily In Your Hand

Eric Whitacre

0:08-0:10 (added dissonance)

Technique 3 – Use Tonal Elements to Enhance Anticipation

Genre

Song

Frisson Moment Flagged By Listeners

Link

Pop

Shake It Off

Taylor Swift

2:42-2:45

Pop

xxx

xxx

xxx

Alternative / Indie

Big Bird

AJJ

Into 3:11

Rock / Metal

The Long and Winding Road

The Beatles

Into 0:39 

Country / Folk

The Joke

Brandi Carlole

1:20-1:30 (IV-iv-I) 

Classical

When David Heard

Eric Whitacre

1:32-1:49

Film Music

Flying Over Africa (Out of Africa)

John Barry

1:32-1:48 (II-ii-I)

Soundtrack

ABC Cafe / Red & Black

Eddie Redmayne

3:58-4:12

Other

Never Enough (The Greatest Showman)

Loren Allred

2:31-2:36 (IV-iv-I)

Other

Forth Eorlingas

Howard Shore

2:33-2:41 (bII-V-I with tritone transposition)

Other

The Day We Fight Back (Independence Day)

David Arnold

3:10-3:15 (V/V-V-I)

Technique 4 – Use Rhythmic Elements to Enhance Anticipation

Genre

Song

Frisson Moment Flagged By Listeners

Link

Pop

Despacito

Luis Fonsi & Daddy Yankee

1:00-1:03

Rock / Metal

Tender Surrender

Steve Vai

2:36-2:40

Rock / Metal

Deconstruction

Devin Townsend Project

7:16

Hip-Hop / R&B

Feel the Vibe

BJ The Chicago Kid

1:49-1:52

Dance / Electronic

Five Hours

Deorro

0:31-0:38

Country / Folk

Ain’t Going Down Till the Sun Comes Up

Garth Brooks

2:23

Classical

Piano Concerto No. 2 – Mvt. 2

Rachmaninoff

10:26-10:31

Film Music

Main Title (The Matrix Reloaded)

Don Davis

0:48-1:00

Soundtrack

Once There Was a Hushpuppy

Dan Romber & Benh Zeitlin

1:12-1:20

Other

Violin Concerto No. 1 – Mvt. 1

Mendelssohn

8:58-9:04

Other

House of Woodcock (Phantom Thread)

xxx

1:07

Technique 5 – Use Sonic Elements to Enhance Anticipation

Genre

Song

Frisson Moment Flagged By Listeners

Link

Pop

Good As Hell

Lizzo

2:05-2:08

Alternative / Indie

Retrograde

James Blake

1:35-1:38

Rock / Metal

The Great Nothing

Spock’s Beard

21:36-21:48

Hip-Hop / R&B

Girl on Fire

Alicia Keys

0:41-0:44

Dance / Electronic

Silver

Caribou

3:23-3:30

Country / Folk

From This Moment On

Shania Twain

2:56-3:00

Classical

Sympohony No. 10 – Mvt. 4

Mahler

0:57-1:10

Film Music

Streets of Paris (Perfume)

Johnny Klimek, Reinhod Heil & Tom Tykwer

0:33-0:38

Soundtracks

Guns and Ships (Hamilton)

Leslie Odom Jr. & Daveed Diggs

0:27-0:31

Other

Space Chords

Blue Devils

2:06

Other

The Eyeland (Lost: Season1)

Michael Giacchino

1:40-1:53

Other

Amazing Grace 

Phantom Regiment

1:24-1:27

Other

Tsunami

DVBBS & Borgeous

1:12-1:16

Listens to thousands more examples in our Library