Startle

Radically violate listener expectations

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

Definition

The Startle pattern is a set of techniques artists use to surprise us; its when they pull a bait-and-switch on listeners, making us think the music is going way then suddenly going a different direction. Not just any musical surprise will give us chills. An effective bait-and-switch has to contribute to the flow of a song; it has to serve a musical purpose that our ear can quickly detect. If a musician does something unpredictable just for the sake of being unpredictable (e.g. a random loud blast in an otherwise quiet song), this will just annoy us. There is a fine line between a violated expectation that is thrilling vs. unpleasant; artistry is required.    

Listen to examples 

Mechanism

When musicians use the Startle pattern, they trigger an involuntary defense reflex. We react strongly to unanticipated changes in sound because hearing is the fastest of our five senses (light travels faster than sound but is processed more slowly in the eye than sound in the ear). Even for something like an unseen door slamming, our brain instantly prompts us to duck our head, hold our breath, and release adrenaline. Musicians surprise us with sound by leveraging two types of expectations: expectations based on our previous music listening (e.g., the dominant resolves to the tonic, rock bands have four instruments, the Star Spangled Banner starts with “O say can you see”, etc.), and expectations we develop as a song unfolds (e.g. “whenever the hook is repeated twice, the key changes”, or “the female vocalists always comes back in on the chorus”, etc.). 

Technique #1: Violate a melodic expectation

The first Startle pattern technique involves violating common melodic tendencies. In Western music, key tendencies include: small and medium intervals (most melodic motion is via major and minor 2nds or small leaps by 3rd and 4ths), step-wise motion rather than continuous glides between notes, and smooth antecedent-consequent phrasing.

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

  • Small steps to large leaps: typically at the opening of a song or after a sequence of small intervals when they are least expected, large upward leaps by a 5th or more (especially 7ths and octaves) that are frequently held, repeated, and/or paired with a register change to draw listener attention to them
  • Step-wise motion to gliding motion: typically melisma on lead vocals, after a prolonged section or phrase that only uses step-wise motion, and used very sparingly across a song to avoid dramatic over-kill (it is thought that natural melisma indicates an authentic, uncontrolled outburst of emotion)
  • Establish-reinforce-violate phrasing: in which an antecedent phrase is repeated at least twice, then a consequent phrase enters via a skipped beat or interruption mid-phrase and introduces new melodic material (this can also occur across sections, i.e. a chorus is repeated twice then changed the 3rd time)

Don’t interpret this technique as a “hack” that automatically results in chills. Just jumping up an octave randomly 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 Startle pattern.

Anecdote: Film composer John Williams is famous for using 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), is a popular submission to our listener dataset.

Technique #2: Violate a harmonic expectation

The second Startle pattern technique involves violating common harmonic tendencies. In Western music, key tendencies include: dominant-powered cadences, consistent chord structures (typically triads), and certain counterpoint rules. Most Western listeners absorb these rules through repeated listening and exposure growing up, making it highly effective for frisson when artists dramatically break them for effect.

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

  • Interrupted progressions: typically in the form of deceptive cadences where a dominant function chord moves to a non-tonic chord (e.g., V-vi, V-VI, V-i,  V-I with added non-chord tones, V-inharmonic noise) or half cadences where a non-dominant chord moves to a non-tonic chord
  • Abrupt shifts in chord structures: sudden shifts from an unharmonized to a harmonized melody, or from a baseline, heavily used chord structure (typically triads) to a temporary new chord type (e.g. diminished chords, sus4 chords, major 7th chords, tone clusters, etc.)
    • Abrupt shifts in counterpoint: using one form of harmonic motion consistently and then suddenly changing to a different type of motion (e.g., parallel to oblique motion, direct to contrary motion), or starting a piece immediately with a more complex form like contrary motion 
    Don’t interpret this technique as a “hack” that automatically results in chills. Just throwing a diminished chord randomly into a progression 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 Startle pattern.

    AnecdoteOne of the most famous examples of a deceptive cadence, and a popular submission to our dataset of listener frisson moments, is the classical fanfare known as the 2001 Space Odyssey theme (Richard Strauss’ Thus Spake Zarathustra). The well-known opening phrases feature an aborted V-(I)-i sequence.

    Technique #3: Violate a tonal expectation

    The third Startle pattern technique involves abruptly shifting the tonal center of a piece. Most Western music transitions smoothly between related keys (that share many notes) through the use of pivot chords and other techniques to “prepare” listeners. Most Western music also features either the major or natural minor scale. When artists radically deviate from these tonal tendencies, it can be highly effective for frisson.

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

    • Direct modulations to “distant” keys: typically shifts up or down by a half step, whole step, chromatic mediant, or certain larger jumps (e.g., tritone transposition, hexatonic pole), all involving unprepared transitions between keys with few to no shared notes
    • Certain modal shifts and uses of the church modes: typically parallel and relative mode flips that minimize changes in accidentals (e.g. EM to Em, CM to Dm Dorian), or shifts to “brighter” modes with more sharps (e.g. Minor to Dorian, Major to Lydian, etc.) or between highly unrelated modes (e.g. Phrygian to Lydian)
    • Unconventional scales: for example the maqam modes from Arabic music, the Pelog scale from Indonesian gamelan music, the whole tone scale, or the Phrygian dominant mode, typically entering at the opening of a piece or start of a new section after a previous section in major or natural minor 
    Don’t interpret this technique as a “hack” that automatically results in chills. Just using the Phrygian dominant mode 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 Startle pattern.

    AnecdoteWhile many dismiss step-up modulations as over-used and too dramatic, the famous GM to G#M shift in Michael Jackson’s 1988 Man In the Mirror was one of the most popular submissions to our dataset. Another popular submission is the Em to Fm shift in the 2016 Broadway hit song Waving Through a Window.

    Technique #4: Violate a rhythmic expectation

    The fourth Startle pattern technique involves large changes in the rhythm, meter, or tempo of a piece. Given our natural tendency to “entrain” to – or synchronize with – a musical pulse, we’re quite sensitive to changes in rhythmic emphasis. We generally expect and want the rhythm to stay the same so we can move and dance to it. Our ear appears to be especially sensitive to changes from on-beat to off-beat rhythms.

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

    • Sudden shifts into and out of syncopation: typically at the start of a new section and occurring on the upbeat; in pop and rock music its most common for these shifts to occur in the baseline, while in hip-hop rappers often toy with listeners and shift unpredictably into and out of syncopation in the lead line
    • Sudden changes in rhythmic complexity: typically in the lead melodic line and involving the sudden doubling or halving of rhythmic values per beat (e.g. diminution and augmentation), or acute shifts between even and odd-numbered subdivisions (e.g. hemiolas and other shift between duple and tuple meters) 
    • Sudden shifts into and out of rubato: typically in the “pick-up” from a free-flowing moment rubato section back to straight tempo, typically separated by a brief hold or pause to enhance the contrast

    Don’t interpret this technique as a “hack” that automatically results in chills. Just switching from on-beats to off-beats in the baseline 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 Startle pattern.

    AnecdoteThe American TV show American Dad featured Joe Satriani’s song “Always With Me, Always With You” during the ending scene of a 2012 episode. The editors chose a prominent hemiola in the song for the climax of scene. Hundreds of online commenters frequently point to this moment as giving them frisson. 

    Technique #5: Violate a sonic expectation

    The fifth Startle pattern technique involves large shifts in the dynamics or timbre palette of a piece. The human startle reflex is very sensitive to sudden changes in loudness and frequency content. We’re especially reactive to the initial entrances of new vocalists or voice-like instruments (saxophone, etc.), likely because of  evolutionary benefits outside of music of being able to detect and identify voices.

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

    • Large, acute changes in dynamics: typically loud hits after a quiet section or silent pause, embellished with fast-attack instruments like percussion (researchers in Germany have found that certain absolute and relative changes in loudness are required to trigger the frisson response)
    • Dramatic expansion or contraction of the amount of frequency range occupied by the music: typically done with orchestration (e.g. a sudden soloist-to-ensemble contrast, a “drop-out” where all the instruments except one suddenly stop playing) or with EQ and other production techniques
    • Entrance of a “contrasting” timbre: a timbre with significantly different frequency content from the previous texture (e.g., vocals after instrumental section, male vs. female singer, acoustic vs. electronic instrument, etc.), typically entering on an upbeat and introducing new melodic material 

    Don’t interpret this technique as a “hack” that automatically results in chills. A random loud stab 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 Startle pattern.  

    AnecdoteIn a 1995 study at UCLA researchers found that one of the frisson moments that “worked” most reliably for test students was a passage from Pink Floyd’s The Final Cut. The moment occurs at 3:08 (of 4:42) and features a sudden vocal and percussion stab after five seconds of virtual silence. 

    Examples of Technique 1: Violate a melodic expectation

    Genre

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

    Song

    What About Us
    Someone You Loved
    Sweet Child O’ Mine
    Tennessee Whiskey
    Dead To Me
    Voyager
    Symphony No. 5 – Mvt. 1
    End Credits (E.T.)
    Ladies In Their Sensitivities
    Space Oddity

    Artist

    P!nk
    Lewis Capaldi
    Guns N’ Roses
    Chris Stapleton
    Kali Uchis
    Daft Punk
    Mahler
    John Williams
    Stephen Sondheim
    David Bowie

    Frisson Moment Flagged by Listeners

    3:36
    0:25
    0:00
    1:16-1:19
    0:22
    3:10
    0:14
    0:04
    2:55
    2:43

    Examples of Technique 2 - Violate a harmonic expectation

    Genre

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

    Song

    Wings
    Welcome Home, Son
    Woodstock
    Whichita Lineman
    Kiss From A Rose
    Sleepwalker (feat. Joni Fatora)
    Nearer My God To Thee
    Reunited (An American Tail)
    I Am Moana (Song of the Ancestors)
    Fox Fanfare (Alien 3)

    Artist

    Little Mix
    Radical Face
    Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young
    Glen Campbell
    Seal
    Illenium
    BYU Vocal Point
    James Horner
    Rachel House
    Elliot Goldenthal

    Frisson Moment Flagged by Listeners

    1:01 (i-I)
    1:19 (V-vi)
    1:04
    0:49
    2:40 (I-i)
    1:17
    2:36 (v-VI)
    3:14
    2:19 (V-vi-I)
    0:14

    Examples of Technique 3 - Violate a tonal expectation

    Genre

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

    Song

    Man In The Mirror
    Morning Bell
    Space Oddity
    Kaw-liga
    Un-Break My Heart
    Y
    Malcolm is Dead
    Alice’s Theme (Alice in Wonderland)
    Waving Through A Window
    The Bells of Notre Dame

    Artist

    Michael Jackson
    Radiohead
    David Bowie
    Hank Williams
    Toni Braxton
    iamamiwhoami
    James Newton Howard
    Danny Elfman
    Ben Platt & Original Cast
    Alan Menken

    Frisson Moment Flagged by Listeners

    2:52 (GM to G#M)
    0:41
    1:23
    1:33 (Am to AM)
    3:09 (Bm to Dm)
    5:49
    1:10 (Dbm to Cm)
    0:49-0:51 (Lydian half-cadnence)
    3:01 (Em to Fm)
    6:05 (Picardy third)

    Examples of Technique 4 - Violate rhythmic expectation

    Genre

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

    Song

    Just The Way You Are
    All Is Violent, All Is Bright
    Always With Me, Always With You
    Octavarium
    44 More
    Says
    Appalachian Spring – Doppio
    The Middle of the World (Moonlight)
    Chase (E.T.)
    Conga

    Artist

    Bruno Mars
    God Is An Astronaut
    Joe Satriani
    Dream Theater
    Logic
    Nils Frahm
    Aaron Copland
    Nicholas Britell
    John Williams
    Gloria Estefan

    Frisson Moment Flagged by Listeners

    1:27
    3:11
    1:53
    18:06
    0:54
    7:16
    2:09
    0:37
    4:28
    0:08

    Examples of Technique 5 - Violate a sonic expectation

    Genre

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

    Song

    High Hopes
    Sweet Disposition
    Everbody Hurts
    Whiskey Lullaby
    Electric (feat. Khalid)
    Sea of Voices
    Requiem – Confutatis
    Forth Eorlingas
    Silver for Monsters (The Witcher 3)
    The Bare Necessities (Jungle Book trailer)

    Artist

    Panic! At The Disco
    The Temper Trap
    R.E.M.
    Brad Paisley & Alison Krauss
    Alina Baraz
    Porter Robinson
    Mozart
    Howard Shore
    Marcin Pryzybylowicz
    The Hit House

    Frisson Moment Flagged by Listeners

    0:57
    0:36
    1:25
    1:55
    3:28
    3:14
    0:20
    2:14
    1:24
    1:23

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