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 when artists create and release musical tension, temporarily making a passage feel unstable and strained so that we yearn for a return to stability. But not just any perfect authentic cadence will give us chills. Musicians need to prolong and intensify dissonant tension, and then release that tension in an unexpected and engaging way. Artistry is required. The longer musical tension lasts, the more intense the anticipation, the more surprising the resolution, and the more complete the release, the more likely listeners are to experience frisson.

Listen to examples 

Mechanism

The Resolution pattern takes 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 upcoming (e.g. the build up to a climax). Then, at the last second, they slightly delay or tweak the arrival of the anticipated note. Second, artists use high-energy sounds (e.g. very loud sounds, very fast rhythms, etc.). Our brain knows these extreme sounds are difficult to sustain and indicate a powerful, and therefore potentially dangerous, sound source. This makes us feel stress and yearn for the energy to dissipate.

Technique #1: Use Melody to Create Tension

The first technique for creating a Resolution pattern is to delay an anticipated note in a melodic phrase. This method involves using pitch, tuning, and phrasing to guide listeners to expect a certain note, but then to withhold that note’s arrival to enhance tension. 

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

  • Intentional tuning “misses”: typically at the end of a cadence, hitting the tonic slightly sharp or flat and then quickly gliding up or down to the anticipated note 
  • Appoggiaturas: and other related non-chord tone techniques that delay an anticipated note until the off-beat after it was originally expected
  • Pitch bends from the dominant or leading tone: sudden shifts to gliding motion at the end of a phrase or cadence that “lean” into the expected tonic

Don’t interpret these methods as “hacks” that automatically result in chills.  Set-up and follow-up are key. Consult the Frisson 101 page for insights on implementation.

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

Technique #2: Use Harmony to Create Tension 

The second technique for creating a Resolution pattern is to embellish conventional diatonic progressions with added dissonance. This technique involves various harmonic devices to increase strain in a cadence while still signaling (and eventually delivering) that a release is coming.

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

  • Non-chord tones held across chords in a conventional progression: typically dissonant pedal points or exposed suspensions sustained throughout a cadence
  • Added dissonances to each chord in a conventional progression: typically clashing neighbor notes, upper extensions, or clusters
  • “Structural dissonance” through an initial thwarted resolution: extended progressions where the first appearance of the dominant sets up a resolution, but is instead followed by a deceptive cadence, half cadence or inverted tonic chord, creating a structural dissonance while the sequence immediately repeats and the the second time the dominant resolves to the tonic as expected

Don’t interpret these methods as “hacks” that automatically result in chills.  Set-up and follow-up are key. Consult the Frisson 101 page for insights on implementation.

Anecdote: Artists sometimes take suspensions to extremes when delaying resolution and prolonging tension. Jeff Buckley sits on the dominant for over 15 seconds in the famous live recording of “Hallelujah”. And the famous Tristan chord in Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde doesn’t truly resolve for over four and half hours until the final climax of the opera.

Technique #3: Use Tonality to Enhance Anticipation

The third technique for creating a Resolution pattern is to use tonal ambiguity to enhance tension. This method centers around the use of borrowed chords and notes from other scales that temporarily disorient listeners, making the return to the tonic of the home key especially effective.

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

  • Modal interchange or chromaticism right before the end of a diatonic progression: typically on the chord immediately prior to the tonic, for example a borrowed chord 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 tritone transpositions (e.g. Dm-BbM-Bbm-Em-DM)
  • Chromatic pre-dominant chords prior that extend and enhance dominant function: especially secondary dominants, secondary leading tones, German augmented sixths, and descending circle-of-fifths progressions
  • Unambiguous tonal resolution after a prolonged, tonally ambiguous section: for example 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 these methods as “hacks” that automatically result in chills.  Set-up and follow-up are key. Consult the Frisson 101 page for insights on implementation.

Anecdote: Lighting the Beacons

Technique #4: Use Rhythm to Enhance Anticipation

The fourth technique for creating a Resolution pattern is to use non-linear rhythmic movement or rhythmic “dissonance” to enhance tension. This method involves certain manipulations of the complexity and pacing of musical movement to enhance strain and anticipation prior to a release of tension.

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

  • Increasing rhythmic “momentum” into a resolution: typically by shortening rhythmic values (e.g. diminution) or shifts to shorter and shorter meters (e.g. 4/4 to 3/4 to 2/4, etc.)
  • Rhythmic “de-acceleration” into a resolution: typically rubato slow-downs, lengthening rhythmic values (e.g. augmentation), or silent holds
  • Rhythmic “dissonance” prior to a resolution: typically sudden shifts to clashing poly-rhythms near the end of a progression and then a return to one rhythm on the tonic

Don’t interpret these methods as “hacks” that automatically result in chills.  Set-up and follow-up are key. Consult the Frisson 101 page for insights on implementation.

Anecdote: The song “With You” from Ghost the Musical is a popular submission to our dataset of listener frisson moments. The piece has a dramatic, silent pause before each chorus. This part of the piece prompted a famous judge on the TV show The X Factor, 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 song that gives me chills every time.” 

Technique #5: Use Frequency Range to Enhance Anticipation

The fifth technique for creating a Resolution pattern is to use sonic manipulations to enhance tension. This method involves using certain sonic illusions, texture shifts, or stretching an instrument’s range to enhance tension and make listeners yearn for a release.

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

  • Continuously-rising glissandos and Shepard tones: especially white-noise risers and “noisy”, slow, upward sweeps on string instruments
  • Certain texture “drop-outs”: especially the sudden removal of the accompaniment near the end of a cadence, which makes listeners anticipate its return on the tonic 
  • Held notes at the upper edge of an instrument’s comfortable range: typically a long quiet note on vocals or upper harmonics on string instruments

Don’t interpret these methods as “hacks” that automatically result in chills.  Set-up and follow-up are key. Consult the Frisson 101 page for insights on implementation.

Anecdote

Examples of Technique 1: Using Melody to Enhance Anticipation

Genre

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

Song

Gravity
Oh Comely
Everybody Talks
Cry Pretty
I’ve Been Loving You Too Long
Coffee
Rhapsody in Blue
Lost But Won (Rush)
Lot’s Wife (Caroline or Change)
Four Women

Artist

Sara Bareilles
Neutral Milk Hotel
Neon Trees
Carrie Underwood
Otis Redding
Sylvan Esso
George Gershwin
Hans Zimmer
Tonya Pinkins
Nina Simone

Listener Frisson Moment

2:52-2:54
5:52-5:58
0:30-0:32
2:53-2:55
0:20-0:22
3:38-3:41
0:05-0:07
2:32-2:36
2:41-2:46
4:08-4:12

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

Listener Frisson Moment

2:33-2:35
5:55-6:12
2:55-3:05
4:12-4:22
3:40-3:43
3:10-3:14
4:52-5:10
4:31-4:39
1:10
2:13-2:16

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
The Joke
xxx
xxx
When David Heard
Flying Over Africa (Out of Africa)
Red & Black (Les Miserables)
Never Enough

Artist

Taylor Swift
Andrew Jackson Jihad
The Beatles
Brandi Carlile
xxx
xxx
Eric Whitacre
John Barry
Eddie Redmayne
Loren Allred

Listener Frisson Moment

2:42-2:45
3:11
0:39
1:20-1:30
xxx
xxx
1:49
1:32-1:48 (II-ii-I)
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)

Listener Frisson Moment

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
0:08
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
Silver
From This Moment On
Girl On Fire
Tsunami
Symphony No. 10 – Mvt. 4
Streets of Paris (Perfume)
Guns and Ships (Hamilton)
Space Chords warmup

Artist

Lizzo
James Blake
Caribou
Shania Twain
Alicia Keys
DVBBS & Borgeous
Mahler
Klimek, Heil & Tykwer
Leslie Odom Jr. & Daveed Diggs
The Blue Devils

Listener Frisson Moment

2:05-2:08
1:35-1:38
3:23-3:30
2:56-3:00
0:41-0:44
1:12-1:16
0:57-1:10
0:33-0:38
0:27-0:31
2:06

Listens to thousands more examples in our Library