Startle

Radically violate listener expectations

“Wow I did not see that transition coming at all. Instant shivers”   

The Startle pattern is a set of techniques for creating and violating listener expectations. Audiences bring certain expectations to music based on previous listening (e.g., the dominant resolves to the tonic, rock bands tend to have four instruments, etc.). Our brains also search for patterns and formulate additional expectations as we listen to new music (e.g., “it seems whenever a certain phrase gets repeated twice, the key changes”, or “the vocals always seem to come back in on the chorus”, etc.). It can be thrilling when these expectations are subverted, but only when the surprise is purposeful and integrated into the musical flow. If an unanticipated change is too random or extreme, we experience it as unpleasant. The more effectively you prime listener expectations, the more dramatically you violate those expectations, and the more quickly you demonstrate the violation is intentional and additive to the music, the more likely audiences are to experience chills.

The Startle pattern can trigger our fight-or-flight response by taking advantage of involuntary defensive reflexes.

To help us survive, our brains make constant statistical predictions about our environment. But for our evolutionary ancestors, wrong predictions could have life-or-death consequences. It is theorized that as a result, we’ve developed highly sensitive reflexes to protect ourselves in the event of a surprise. Consider when an unseen door slams; your body automatically triggers dozens of physiological reactions, from ducking your head to holding your breath to releasing adrenaline, to prepare you in case the unanticipated sound turns out to be a threat. One reason music can produce such powerful reactions like frisson is that it enlists these defense mechanisms that evolved for literal life-or-death situations. We are especially sensitive to unanticipated changes in sound because hearing is the fastest of the five senses. While light travels faster than sound, our ears have a direct conduit to the brain stem and process sound more quickly than our eyes process light. 

You can cultivate audience expectations using sequencing (listeners expect more of what they hear first), repetition (listeners expect more of what they hear frequently), and musical idioms (listeners expect more of what they are already familiar with, for example the 20th century Fox fanfare or national anthems). Keep in mind this pattern is heavily influenced by previous music consumption. For example, if you grow up listening to music that uses a certain rare modulation, but your friend grows up listening to a different genre that never uses that modulation, a new song featuring the modulation may not startle you but it may give your friend chills. Alternatively, if a new song features the modulation 10 times in a row, its very unlikely either you or your friend will experience frisson the 10th time.

Our listener data indicates that certain melodic deviations can often startle listeners and induce frisson. These techniques take advantage of listener expectations (in Western music) that melodies generally progress in smooth intervals, stay in the same register, and tend to repeat themselves. Keep in mind there is nothing inherent or biological about these expectations; their power comes from general statistical patterns learned from Western music. 

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

  • Sudden disjunct motion, especially prominent upward leaps at the start of a song or end of a cadence (6ths, 7ths, octaves, ninths, 10ths) and octave displacement on weak beats throughout melodic lines
  • Sudden shifts from step-wise motion to melisma (or vice versa), almost always in lead vocals
  • Establish-reinforce-violate (ERV) phrasing, typically as “local” phrasing patterns (2 antecedents, then different consequent phrase, often introduced mid-repetition or via a skipped beat) or “global” sectional patterns (e.g. 2 repetitions of chorus, then change on the third)

Don’t interpret these tactics as “hacks” that automatically give listeners chills. Our data suggests that when using these moves, it helps to:

  • Feature solo instruments
  • Sparse arrangements
  • Slow tempo, generally quieter dynamics
  • Dynamics can go either way
  • Prolong or repeat the violation to encourage an appraisal response

Anecdote: Film composer John Williams is famous for using large leaps at the beginning of his melodies, especially I-V leaps. Williams’ “End Credits” music from E.T. the Extraterrestrial, which features repeated major seventh leaps (and the composer himself playing the piano), was a popular submission to our dataset of listener frisson moments

Our data indicates that certain harmonic deviations often startle listeners to the point of chills. This method takes advantage of listener expectations (in Western music) that progressions are generally diatonic and harmonized to 3rd and 6th intervals, follow dominant-powered cadences, and maintain consistent chord structures and pacing of chord changes. Keep in mind there is nothing inherent or biological about any of these expectations; their power comes from violating general statistical patterns we’ve learned from Western music.

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

  • Interrupted progressions, where instead of ending in a V-I a cadence instead ends on a V-vi, V-i, or follows the dominant with a cluster chord or even inharmonic noise (deceptive cadence and chromatically modulating cadence?)
  • Quickly varying progressions featuring shifts in counterpoint (i.e. parallel vs. oblique vs. contrary motion), chord pacing (i.e. often doubling or halving), and chord structures (i.e. changes in inversions, or dissonant intervals)  
  • Sudden shifts in an out of harmonization, often following an establish-reinforce-violate phrasing or sectional structure typically via backing vocalist entrances sounding the 3rd or 6th but also sometimes with stringed instruments like violins and electric guitars shifting to artificial or natural harmonics

Don’t interpret these tactics as “hacks” that automatically give listeners chills. Our data suggests that when using these moves, it helps to:

  • Placement: Introduce these violations harmonically stable passages and use them sparingly to make them as jarring as possible
  • Set-up: Emphasize harmonic violations with louder dynamics and expanded textures to make them as conspicuous as possible
  • Follow-up: Prolong an unexpected chord, or use elision to re-establish melodic movement, to re-assure listeners the harmonic violation is intentional and create space for a positive listener appraisal response
  • Placement: Feature scalar shifts during section transitions, especially from the verse to the chorus in rock and pop songs
  • Set-up: Reinforce scalar shifts with simultaneous changes in lyrics, rhythm, and texture to make the new mode as conspicuous as possible
  • Follow-up: Use melody to emphasize, through repeated or held notes, the particular changed scale degree that distinguishes a modal shift (e.g. flatted 3rd, sharp 4th, raised 6th, etc.), in order to re-assure listeners the scalar shift is intentional and create space for a positive listener appraisal response
  • Set-up: Precede unexpected modulations with pregnant pauses or holds, and embellish the tonal shift itself with new timbres and louder dynamics, to make them as conspicuous as possible for listeners 
  • Follow-up: Immediately follow an unexpected modulation with a forceful repetition of a familiar theme, or a new melody, to provide harmonic stability and space for a positive listener appraisal response

Anecdote: A famous example of this method, and one of the most frequent classical submissions to our dataset of listener frisson moments, is the intro to Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra (i.e. the 2001 A Space Odyssey theme). In the iconic opening progression, Strauss features a V-I-i sequence, where the anticipated C major tonic is a fleeting ornament that sets up a jarring swerve to C minor.

Our data indicates that certain tonal deviations often startle listeners to the point of frisson. This method takes advantage of listener expectations (in Western music) that progressions generally remain in one scale, sound in either the major or natural minor scale, and transition smoothly between related scales that share many notes. There is nothing inherent or biological these expectations; they are general statistical patterns we’ve learned from Western music.

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

  • Unprepared, direct modulations to new tonal centers with few common notes, especially modulations to chords a half or whole step away, to a chromatic mediant chord, or, less frequently, to a highly distant chord with minimal to no shared notes (tritone transposition, hexatonic pole) 
  • Abrupt modal shifts and use of the church modes, especially parallel and relative mode flips that minimize changes in accidentals (e.g. EM to Em, C Major to Dm Dorian), shifts to “brighter” modes with more sharps (e.g. Minor to Dorian, Major to Lydian, Mixolyidan to Major), and, less frequently, shifts between highly unrelated modes (e.g. Phrygian to Lydian) 
  • Sudden shifts between tonal and inharmonic sections (and vice versa)
Don’t interpret these tactics as “hacks” that automatically give listeners chills. Our data suggests that when using these moves, it helps to:
 
  • Placement: Feature scalar shifts during section transitions, especially from the verse to the chorus in rock and pop songs
  • Set-up: Reinforce scalar shifts with simultaneous changes in lyrics, rhythm, and texture to make the new mode as conspicuous as possible
  • Follow-up: Use melody to emphasize, through repeated or held notes, the particular changed scale degree that distinguishes a modal shift (e.g. flatted 3rd, sharp 4th, raised 6th, etc.), in order to re-assure listeners the scalar shift is intentional and create space for a positive listener appraisal response
  • Set-up: Precede unexpected modulations with pregnant pauses or holds, and embellish the tonal shift itself with new timbres and louder dynamics, to make them as conspicuous as possible for listeners 
  • Follow-up: Immediately follow an unexpected modulation with a forceful repetition of a familiar theme, or a new melody, to provide harmonic stability and space for a positive listener appraisal response

Anecdote: A famous example of this method, and one of the most frequent classical submissions to our dataset of listener frisson moments, is the intro to Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra (i.e. the 2001 A Space Odyssey theme). In the iconic opening progression, Strauss features a V-I-i sequence, where the anticipated C major tonic is a fleeting ornament that sets up a jarring swerve to C minor.

Our data indicates that certain rhythmic deviations often startle listeners to the point of chills. This method takes advantage of our natural tendency to “entrain” to rhythm, tempo, and meter, which makes it especially jarring when these elements abruptly shift. While it’s likely that the ability of these rhythmic changes to induce frisson is primarily emergent from the musical context surrounding them (i.e. how they are paired with melodic and timbral changes, etc.), there do appear to be certain absolute ratios of, and rates of change in, BPM and rhythmic emphasis that can significantly increase the likelihood of the effect and may have a biological basis (relationship to our heartbeat, etc.).

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

  • Sudden shifts into and out of syncopation, often via shifting to a syncopated baseline in a new section or starting a phrase early on the upbeat when it is anticipated on the downbeat
  • Sudden shifts in meter and rhythmic complexity, typically via diminution in a lead line or shifts between even and odd-numbered subdivisions (e.g. hemiola) 
  • Sudden tempo shifts, typically via switching between straight and rubato playing, or by step-wise changes in BPM

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

  • Introduce a rhythmic or tempo change at the end of a cadence or climax of a phrase, when listeners are distracted by the melodic and harmonic movement, to make it a jarring as possible
  • Precede rhythmic changes with dramatic holds or skipped beat to make them as conspicuous as possible
  • Pair rhythmic and tempo changes with the restatement of a familiar theme or other stable melodic material to create space for a positive appraisal response

Anecdote: Composer John Adams coined the term “rhythmic dissonance” (likening it to a harmonic dissonance created by a deceptive cadence) to describe his technique of interrupting or masking the pulse of a piece. Adams’ “Short Ride In A Fast Machine”, which uses this technique prominently, was a popular classical submission to our dataset of listener frisson moments. Guitarist Steve Vai’s essay on polyrhythms, dating back to his earliest work transcribing for Frank Zappa, is worth a read as you think about how to harness the potential of violations of rhythmic expectations.

Our data indicates that certain sudden changes in frequency content and decibel level can often startle listeners and induce frisson. These techniques take advantage of our natural sensitivity to human voices and our tendency to identify and group sound sourcesWhile it’s likely that the ability of texture and dynamics changes to induce frisson primarily comes from interactions with the surrounding musical context (i.e,. how they are paired with melodic, harmony, tonal, and rhythmic changes), there do appear to be certain absolute changes in overtone resonance, loudness, and frequency spectrum that can significantly increase the likelihood of the effect and may have a biological basis. 

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

  • Sudden, initial entrance of a new vocalist or voice-like instrument (e.g. oboe, cello, saxophone), typically introducing new melodic material and entering on a upbeat
  • Sudden entrance of a contrasting timbre, either across vocalists (e.g. male vs. female, old vs. young) sections (i.e. strings vs. brass vs. winds vs. percussion vs. electronic), or between instrumental vs. nature sounds
  • Dramatic expansion or contraction of the portion of the frequency range occupied by the music, typically via ensemble-soloist contrast, sudden addition of a bass or lead line, and the use of EQ and filters
  • Large, abrupt changes in dynamics, typically via sudden, fast-attack increases in loudness or sudden silence

Don’t interpret these tactics as “hacks” that automatically give listeners chills. Our data suggests that when using these moves, it helps to:

  • Placement: Feature extreme dissonance in a capella or solo piano arrangements to focus listeners on the sound
  • Set-up: Use slow tempos and homophonic texture to focus listener attention on the sonority or “color” of the music
  • Follow-up: Sustain and repeat dissonant harmonies, or pause after they are sounded, to signal to listeners that they are intentional and leave space for a positive listener appraisal response

Anecdote: In the context of the famous “loudness wars” in the music industry involving the overuse of compression, the evidence still suggests that sudden dynamic changes continue to be effective. Songs with high dynamic range achieve outsized commercial success. As one audio engineer puts it, “Loudness has its place, but most of us like our music to have breathing room, so that our ear drums are constantly tickled by little sonic explosions. In a tight, compressed space, music can get asphyxiated.”

Technique 1 – Violate a melodic expectation

Genre

Song

Frisson Moment Flagged By Listeners

Link

Pop

What About Us

P!nk

3:36

Alternative / Indie

Someone You Loved

Lewis Capaldi

0:25 

Rock / Metal

Sweet Child O’ Mine

Guns N’ Roses

Opening 

Hip-hop / R&B

Without You

Mariah Carey

1:33-1:35

Electronic / Dance

Symphony (feat. Zara Larsson)

Clean Bandit

0:54

Country / Folk

Tennessee Whiskey

Chris Stapleton

1:16-1:19

Classical

Mariettalied (Die tote Stadt)

Korngold

3:49 

Film Music

End Credits (E.T. the Extraterrestrial)

John Williams

Opening 

Soundtrack

Ladies in Their Sensitivities (Sweeney Todd)

Stephen Sondheim

2:55 

Other

Rang

Amjad Sabri & Rahat Fateh Ali Khan

Opening 

Technique 2 – Violate a harmonic expectation

Genre

Song

Frisson Moment Flagged By Listeners

Link

Pop

Wings

Little Mix

1:01 (i-I)

Alternative / Indie

Welcome Home, Son

Radical Face

1:19 (V-vi)

Rock / Metal

Woodstock

Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young

1:04

Hip-hop / R&B

Kiss From A Rose

Seal

2:40 (I-i)

Dance / Electronic

xxx

xxx

xxx

Country / Folk

715 Creeks

The Nor’Easters (Bon Iver)

2:28-2:31

Classical

Nearer My God To Thee

BYU Vocal Point

2:36 (v-VI)

Film Music 

Reunited (An American Tail)

James Horner 

3:13-3:17

Soundtrack

I Am Moana (Song of the Ancestors)

Rachel House & Auli’i Cravalho

2:19 (V-vi hold then GM instead of Gm)

Other

Fox Fanfare (Alien 3)

Elliot Goldenthal

0:14

Other

Pompeii

Bastille

1:04

Other

Fire Temple (Midsommar)

Bobby Krlic

6:52

Technique 3 – Violate a tonal expectation

Genre

Song

Frisson Moment Flagged By Listeners

Link

Pop

Man In the Mirror

Michael Jackson

2:52 (GM to G#M)

Alternative / Indie

Morning Bell

Radiohead

0:41

Rock / Metal

Space Oddity

David Bowie

1:23

Hip-Hop / R&B

Un-break My Heart

Toni Braxton

3:09 (Bm to Dm)

Hip-hop / R&B

Lovin’ You

Minnie Riperton

1:13-1:17 (Am Dorian to CM)

Country / Folk

Kaw-liga

Hank Williams, Jr.

1:33

Fi;m Music

Malcolm is Dead (The Sixth Sense)

James Newton Howard

1:09 (Dbm to Cm)

Film Music

Reunited (An American Tail)

James Horner

3:14

Film Music

Alice’s Theme (Alice in Wonderland)

Danny Elfman

0:49-0:51 (Lydian half-cadence)

Soundtrack

Waving Through A Window (Dear Evan Hansen)

Ben Platt & Original Cast

3:01 (Em to Fm)

Other

The Bells of Notre Dame

Alan Menken

6:05 (Picardy 3rd)

Film Music

Courtyard Apocalypse

Alexandre Desplat

From 1:12 (Aeolian to Dorian)

Other

Walk On By

Dionne Warwick

xxx

Technique 4 – Violate a rhythmic expectation 

Genre

Song

Frisson Moment Flagged By Listeners

Link

Pop

Just The Way You Are

Bruno Mars

1:27-1:28

Alternative / Indie

All is Violent, All is Bright

God Is an Astronaut

3:11

Rock / Metal

Always With Me, Always With You

Joe Satriani

1:53 

Hip-Hop / R&B

44 More

Logic

0:54 

Dance / Electronic

Says

Nils Frahm

7:16 

Classical / Jazz

Lingus

Snarky Puppy

8:15 

Classical / Jazz

Appalachian Spring – Doppio movimento

Aaron Copland

2:09 

Film Music

Chase (E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial)

John Williams

4:27-4:28

Soundtrack

The Middle of the World

Nicholas Britell

0:37 

Other

Conga

Gloria Estefan

Opening

Rock / Metal

Octavarium

Dream Theater

18:06 (hemiola and diminution)

Pop

7 Rings

Ariana Grande

0:40 (meter shift)

Soundtrack

Antrozous (Batman Begins)

Hans Zimmer

Tempo shift at 0:54

Pop

Shout

The Isley Brothers

xxx

Rock / Metal

Making Love OUt Of Nothing At All

AIr Supply

xxx

Technique 5 – Violate a sonic expectation

Genre

Song

Frisson Moment Flagged By Listeners

Link

Pop

High Hopes

Panic! At The Disco

0:57-0:58

Alternative / Indie

Sweet Disposition

The Temper Trap

0:36-0:37

Rock / Metal

Everybody Hurts

REM

1:25 (entrance of second vocal track)

Dance / Electronic

Sea of Voices

Porter Robinson

3:14 (loudness spike)

Hip-Hop/R&B

Electric (feat. Khalid)

Alina Baraz

3:28 (loudness spike)

Country / Folk

Whiskey Lullaby

Brad Paisley & Alison Krauss

1:55 (switch to female lead)

Classical

Requiem – Confutatis

Mozart

0:20 (shift from male to female vocals)

Film Music

Forth Eorlingas (The Lord of the Rings)

Howard Shore

2:14

Soundtracks

Silver for Monsters (The Witcher 3)

Marcin Pryzybylowicz

1:24 (vocal entrance)

Other

Dreamer

Four Tet

1:57 (entrance of bird sounds)

Other

The Bare Necessities (Jungle Book Trailer)

The Hit House

1:24

Other

Feel To Follow

The Maccabees

2:17 (loudness spike)

Other

505

Arctic Monkeys

2:29

Other

Man With A Harmonica

Ennio Morricone

Guitar entrance at 1:04

Listens to thousands more examples in our Library