Resolution

Release tension in a delayed or surprising way

 

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

An A Resolution pattern is when you create tension in your music – instability or strain – that prompts listeners to anticipate a release, but then you unexpectedly delay the release or accomplish it in an unexpected way. When playing with a listener’s expectations in this way, it’s crucial that you eventually deliver a robust resolution. If you delay a release for too long without re-assuring listeners it is still going to arrive, or if you only provide a partial release that delivers some but not all of the anticipated notes, this can undercut the power of a resolution. The more heightened the anticipation, the more surprising the resolution, and the more complete the release of tension, the more likely listeners are to experience frisson.

 

An A Resolution pattern can trigger a frisson-inducing fear response because it takes advantage of our brain’s capability to anticipate and experience abstract rewards

We all have a neural “reward system” (what neuroscientists call the striatal dopaminergic system) that developed to motivate us to pursue tangible rewards like food and reproduction. Its theorized that we later evolved a capability to forgo tangible rewards in order to achieve greater abstract rewards later. This formed the basis for long-term planning and delayed gratification, behaviors that helped our evolutionary ancestors survive. 

Researchers have confirmed that a release of music tension is an abstract prize that can trigger our reward system. In a famous frisson study, neuroscientists Valerie Salimpoor and Robert Zatorre found that two different parts of your brains’s reward system release dopamine, one in anticipation of peak moments in music (caudate) and one during the peak moments themselves (nucleas 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…before the resolution 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 we perceive as requiring a lot of 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 developed a heightened sensitivity and sense of caution toward them.

Our data indicates that when you alter the tuning or register of the melodic line at the end of a cadence, this can often move listeners to frisson. The key to this method is giving listeners the notes they expect, but in a slightly varied from so that the end of a progression is less predictable, which then makes the resolution more surprising. 

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

  • Hitting the tonic slightly sharp or flat, then gliding up or down to the anticipated note
  • Octave displacement on the dominant, leading tone, or tonic
  • Vocal inflection on the dominant or leading tone

Don’t interpret this to mean that any octave leap will work. Our data suggests that when using this technique, it helps to:

  • Placement: Use this method on lead vocals (often with a shift in vocal technique e.g., chest to belting voice) or string instruments in high register
  • Set-up: Keep the other musical elements (e.g. orchestration, progression, etc.) simple and conventional to make the melodic deviations conspicuous for listeners
  • Follow-up: Increase note length when you alter the melodic line in order to re-assure listeners the deviation is intentional and leaver space for a positive appraisal response
Anecdote: Many artists couple this technique with lyrics that reinforce the meaning of the gesture. In the example clips above artists use the 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 denote upward or downward motion.

Our data indicates that when you add non-chord tones to conventional progressions and increase dissonant tension, this can often move listeners to frisson. The key to this method is suddenly making chords in well-signaled cadence highly unstable, while the familiarity of the progression (e.g. ii-V-I) re-assures listeners a release is still imminent. 

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

  • Adding highly dissonant neighbor notes, clusters, or upper extensions to the chords immediately preceding the tonic
  • Featuring prolonged suspensions (especially 9-8 and 4-3) and appoggiaturas
  • Prolonged pedal points throughout a cadence

Don’t interpret this to mean that adding non-chord tones to any progression automatically gives listeners chills. Our data suggests that when using this technique, it helps to:

  • Placement: 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
  • Set-up: 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
  • Follow-up: Increase dissonance and note length over the course of a cadence to re-assure listeners the devitations 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 15 seconds in the “Hallelujah” clip above, and the famous Tristan chord in Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde doesn’t truly resolve for over four and half hours until the final scene of the opera. 

Our data indicates that when you temporarily depart from the overall harmonic consonance of a piece and feature a passage of extreme, sustained inharmonic noise and intervals (e.g. minor seconds, flat nines, tritones, clusters), but then abruptly shift back to pure consonance, this can often move listeners to frisson. The key to this method is creating an acute contrast between highly unstable tension and highly stable consonance. 

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

  • Shifts from outright inharmonic noise with heavy distortion to pure consonance
  • Shifts from repeated dissonant tone clusters and polychords to stable diatonic chords

Don’t interpret this to mean that every time you shift from extreme dissonance to consonance that listeners will automatically get chills. Our data suggests that when using this technique, it helps to:

  • Placement: Use this technique sparingly, generally only once in a piece, given how pronounced and disruptive it is
  • Set-up: Use large ensembles and feature vocals and instruments stretching the upper limits of their range, to create especially strident dissonance and then satisfying consonance
  • Follow-up: Use dynamics and note length to embellish the release of tension into consonance and create space for a positive listener appraisal response
Anecdote: Drum corps music is a consistently submitted genre in our dataset of listener frisson moments. One warmup in particular, called Space Chords, is a popular submission. The climax of this routine features a prolonged section of inharmonic noise that suddenly shifts to a consonant closing progression (the “space chords”, see for example 2:05 here)/

Our data indicates that when you use secondary or altered chords to increase pre-dominant tension in a cadence, this can often move listeners to frisson. Given their relatively stronger tendency to resolve to the dominant than typical sub-dominant chords (e.g. ii, IV), chromatic pre-dominant chords can elicit a premonition that a broader resolution is coming. Our ear recognizes the pre-dominant chord will lead to the dominant and often assumes that the dominant, in turn, will lead to the tonic.

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

  • Secondary dominants (e.g. V/V-V-I) and secondary leading tones (e.g. iio7/V-V-I)
  • Augmented sixths (especially German sixths) and tritone substitutions
  • Neopolitan chords (e.g. bii-V-I) and cadential 6-4 chords (V 6/4 – V7 – I)

Don’t interpret this to mean that any time you use a secondary dominant that listeners will get chills. Our data suggests that when using this technique, it helps to:

  • Placement: Feature a distant chromatic transformation in the transition from a preceding section to the chromatic pre-dominant chord starting a cadence, in order to disorient listeners and heighten anticipatory tension once the cadence begins
  • Set-up: Use note length, dynamics, and texture to make a chromatic pre-dominant chord conspicuous for listeners
  • Follow-up: Quickly follow chromatic pre-dominant chords with stable, conventional diatonic sequences to re-assure listeners, and then use orchestration and dynamics to embellish the final arrival of the tonic to cultivate a positive listener appraisal response
Anecdote: The excerpt above from Howard Shore’s “Theodin Rides Forth” is a very popular submission to our dataset of listener frisson moments. Theorist Frank Lehman also profiled this moment in his excellent book on frisson moments in film music. Lehman asserts that the key to this sequence is the huge chromatic shift (tritonal transposition by six half steps) integrated into a conventional Neopolitan cadence, evidence of a broader pattern of “throwing a distant transformation like a monkey wrench into otherwise largely well-behaved diatonic functional progressions.”

Our data indicates that when you use borrowed chords from a parallel mode to enhance the contrast between the tonic and the chord that precedes it in a cadence, this can often move listeners to frisson. The key to this method is making the arrival of the tonic “brighter” and more surprising by simultaneously resolving harmonic and modal tension. 

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

  • “Backdoor” progressions through the bVII from the Mixolydian mode (e.g. bVI-bVII-I) instead of the “front door” V or V7
  • Picardy shifts of minor thirds to major thirds on the tonic (e.g. Aeolian to Ionian, or Dorian to Ionian) 
  • Mixed plagal cadences (e.g. II-ii-I, IV-iv-I, ii/viio-I, iv/b3-I, etc.)

Don’t interpret this to mean that every time you use a borrowed chord at the end of the cadence that listeners will get chills. Our data suggests that when using this technique, it helps to:

  • Placement: Emphasize the modal shift with changes in dynamics, register, and other textural means to make it as conspicuous
  • Set-up: Combine tactics (e.g. backdoor + Picardy shift as in bVI-bVII-I#3) to enhance modal contrast 
  • Follow-up: Increase note length on the tonic and follow it with a rest or restatement of a familiar theme to create stability and space for a positive listener appraisal response
Anecdote: Music theorist David Temperley’s research indicates that there is a spectrum of modal scales in which the sharpness of a scale determines its perceived “happiness”. Mode mixture at the end of a cadence is often effect, according to Temperley, because it pivots from a less happy to a more happy scale, enhancing a sense of harmonic closure. 

Our data indicates that when you set up certain extended cadential sequences that “tip off” that a resolution is coming, this can often move listeners to frisson. The key to this method is using one or multiple unfulfilled resolutions to create a sense of inevitability that a final resolution is coming. 

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

  • Two-part sequences that feature an earlier “aborted” sequence, often a deceptive cadence, half cadence, or resolution to an inverted tonic chord, which is then repeated and on the second repetition resolves to the awaited tonic
  • Descending circle-of-fifths progressions, which can be thought of as chains of pleasant, unfulfilled resolutions that listeners often sense will eventually work their way around the circle of fifths to the long-awaited tonic

Don’t interpret this to mean that any descending circle-of-fifths progression will work. Our data suggests that when using this technique, it helps to:

  • Placement: Use note length, dynamics, and texture to make an earlier “aborted” cadence as conspicuous as possible
  • Set-up: 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 arrive at the end of the sequence
  • Follow-up: Keep the tempo and texture steady, but make the rhythmic values short and busy, to maintain a sense of stable momentum that re-assures listeners the sequence is “going somewhere” and increase the chances of a positive listener appraisal response

Our data indicates that when you alter the rhythmic values to increase intensity, or slow tempo to heighten anticipation, this can often move listeners to frisson. The key to this method is creating a signficant contrast between the conventional nature of the harmonic progression (most often a perfect authentic cadence) and the unconventional nature of the rhythm and tempo.

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

  • Shortening rhythmic values over the course of a cadence, typically via diminution, to create a sense of increasing momentum into the tonic
  • Moving to the tonic “early” on the upbeat when it is anticipated on the downbeat
  • Featuring rubato de-acceleration over the course of a cadence, then reverting to a faster “straight” tempo right on the tonic
  • Creating suspense via a pregnant hold on the dominant or leading tone, or a pregnant silence between the dominant and 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:

  • Placement: Use this method sparingly, at most once in a piece, given how attention-grabbing it is
  • Set-up: 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
  • Follow-up: 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: 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 judge Simon Cowell to remark during a cover of the piece on the TV show The X Facotr, “there is something that I call the perfect silence, which means that everyone is completely focused on you…there is just something about that song that gets me every time.”

Our data indicates that when you introduce radically new timbres at the end of a conventional cadence, this can often move listeners to frisson. The key to this method is creating a significant contrast between the conventional nature of the harmonic progression (most often a perfect authentic cadence) and the unconventional nature of the timbre change. 

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

  • Introducing a previously unheard timbre on the dominant or tonic, usually a new vocalist or instrument with a significantly different resonance distribution from the previous timbre palette in the piece
  • Switching lead vocals from chest voice to belting or falsetto on the dominant or tonic
  • Having a new instrument enter at the high end of its range

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

  • Placement: Use this method once either at the beginning or end of a song, given how pronounced it is
  • Set-up: Keep the preceding harmonic progression, voice leading, and tempo consistent and conventional to make the timbral shift as conspicuous as possible
  • Follow-up: 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

Our data indicates that when you use radical changes in texture to enhance the contrast between the dominant (or leading tone) and the tonic in a cadence, this can sometimes move listeners to frisson. The key to this method is an unconventional timbre change paired with a highly conventional harmonic progression (most often a perfect authentic cadence). 

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

  • Starting a cadence with a melody-accompaniment texture, then dropping out the accompaniment and shifting to a soloist on the dominant/leading tone, and then finally returning to the full homophonic texture on the tonic
  • Shifting from soloist/reduced texture on the dominant/leading tone to full ensemble on the tonic
  • Disrupting a melody-accompaniment texture by having the lead line hit the tonic earlier than anticipated while the accompaniment then resolves on the beat as expected
  • Disrupting a melody-accompaniment texture by having the lead line hit the tonic later than anticipated while the accompaniment resolves to the tonic on the beat

Don’t interpret this to mean that every time you change the texture on the dominant listeners will get chills. Our data suggests that when using this technique, it helps to:

  • Placement: Use this technique at the beginning of a song (often during the transition to the first verse or chorus) when listeners have no expectations, or in the end of a song (often during the transition to the final chorus) after listeners have formed an expectation of the cadence without a texture shift, to make it surprising
  • Set-up: 
  • Follow-up: Maintain a consistent tempo during and return to a stable melody after the texture shift to provide sufficient stability and space to allow for a positive listener appraisal response

Our data indicates that when you significantly alter the amount of the audio spectrum your music occupies at the end of a cadence, this can often move listeners to frisson. The key to this method is enhancing the contrast between the sections of the audio spectrum occupied by the tonic chord and the chords preceding it. 

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

  • Reducing the music to one narrow part of the frequency range before a resolution and then suddenly expanding to fill in most or all of the audio spectrum
  • Abruptly dropping out the lower and middle parts of the range to leave a higher frequency exposed during a resolution
  • Shephard tones and Shephard-Risset glissandos that create an unnatural illusion of a constantly rising frequency and increasing tension

Don’t interpret this to mean that every time you use production techniques to boost and fill out the frequency range that listeners will automatically get chills. Our data suggests that when using this technique, it helps to:

  • Placement: Use this method sparingly given how pronounced it is, typically to enhance the final chorus in a pop song or an especially climactic moment in a film score
  • Set-up: Pair this technique with large shifts in dynamics, timbre, and rhythm to make it conspicuous 
  • Follow-up: Prolong the resolution note and follow it with a familiar melody or stable melodic material to create space for a positive listener appraisal response

Listen to thousands more example clips in our Frisson Database