Startle

Radically violate listener expectations

 

“Wow I did not see 0:14 coming at all. Instant shivers.”

A Startle pattern is when you make listeners think they know where your music is going, but then you suddenly and dramatically violate their expectations. It’s crucial that listeners be able to quickly see that an expected change is intentional and fits into the musical flow. If a sudden shift is too random or disjointed, audiences will simply experience it as disruptive and unpleasant. The more effectively you prime listener expectations, the more radically you violate those expectations, and the more quickly you demonstrate that the violation is purposeful, the more likely audiences are to experience chills.

The Startle pattern can trigger a frisson-inducing fear response because it takes advantage of involuntary defense reflexes designed to protect us when we are surprised.

Our brains constantly make predictions about the environment to help us survive and act. This includes music; when you listen to a song, your brain cannot help but make continuous statistical predictions of what it thinks will happen next. Wrong predictions could easily get our evolutionary ancestors killed. As a result, it is theorized, we developed highly sensitive defense reflexes to protect ourselves in the event of a surprise. 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 much more quickly than our eyes process light. This helps to explain why music is so effective in triggering our defense reflexes.

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). But keep in mind that pattern is often heavily influenced by previous music consumption. Both the earlier parts of a song, and all the previous songs you have ever listened to, affect your musical expectations. If a song uses a certain rare modulation 10 times in a row, for example, that modulation will be less likely to give listeners frisson the 10th time around. Or, if you grew up liking a genre that used a certain rare modulation frequently, but your friend grew up liking a different genre that never used that modulation, when you and your friend hear a new song that uses that modulation it may not startle you but it may give your friend chills. This gives you a lot to think about when prime your listeners.

Our data indicates than when you feature large, prominent upward leaps in your music, this can sometimes startle listeners to the point of frisson. This method is effective because most melodic movement in Western music generally progresses smoothly in steps, either by intervals smaller than a major third or occasionally by repeated medium sized leaps by thirds or fourths. Given how unusual they are, this makes leaps by larger melodic intervals especially attention grabbing. 

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

  • Upward leaps by consonant intervals like octaves, fifths, and sixths
  • Upward leaps by dissonant intervals like major or minor sevenths, ninths, and tenths
  • Upward leaps by highly dissonant tritones and other large augmented intervals

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

  • Placement: Use leaps at the beginning of a song or start o a new section to make them especially conspicuous 
  • Set-up: Pair leaps with reduced orchestration (often solo vocals), monophonic texture, and/or slower tempo to prevent non-melodic distractions and focus attention on the melodic movement
  • Follow-up: Hold the high note of the leap, or repeat a leap, to re-assure listeners the melodic violation is intentional and create space for a positive listener appraisal response
Anecdote: Film composer John Williams is famous for his use of large leaps at the beginning of his melodies, especially I-V leaps. Williams’ “End Credits” music to E.T. the Extraterrestrial, which features rare, 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 than when you suddenly interrupt a conventional, well-signaled harmonic progression (e.g. ii-V-I), this can sometimes startle listeners to the point of frisson. This method is effective because Western music listeners are highly familiar with the dominant-powered cadences of diatonic music. Given how common they are, cadences create strong, precise expectations that certain chord will be heard at certain times, making it especially attention-grabbing when a different chord is sounded instead.

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

  • Deceptive cadences that follow a dominant chord with a chord built on the sixth scale degree (e.g. V-vi instead of V-I)
  • Cadences that resolve to a tonic borrowed from a parallel mode with more flats (e.g. V-i instead of V-I)
  • Progressions where the pace of chord changes haves or doubles

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

  • Placement: Introduce these violations after stable, diatonic passages and use them sparingly in any one song to make them as jarring as possible for listeners
  • Set-up: Emphasize harmonic violations with louder dynamics and expanded textures to make them as conspicuous as possible for listeners
  • 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
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 when you create an expectation that a consonant chord will be heard, but then prominently feature an extreme dissonant harmony, this can sometimes startle listeners to the point of frisson. This method is effective because Western music listeners are highly accustomed to music with a harmonic focus on consonant intervals. Given how unusual musical contexts are where dissonant intervals are made to feel pleasurable and stable, its highly attention-grabbing when your music focuses on these intervals. 

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

  • Abrupt tone clusters and polychords, often with added extensions like 7ths, 9ths, and 11ths
  • Unresolved suspensions and appoggiaturas, often repeated or radically prolonged to draw listener attention to them
  • Sudden inharmonic noise inserted into an otherwise diatonic, consonant section or piece 

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

  • Placement: Feature extreme dissonance in a capella or solo piano arrangements 
  • 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: Songs from the 1986 album “The Mystery of Bulgarian Voices”, which feature pronounced dissonant harmonies, were popular submissions to our dataset of listener frisson moments. Musicians across genres, from Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plank to Frank Zappa to Lisa Gerrard have cited this music as a source of creative inspiration.

Our data indicates that when you feature “distant” or highly unexpected modulations in your music, this can sometimes startle listeners to the point of frisson. This method is effective because Western music listeners are highly accustomed to music with one, stable tonal center that moves smoothly between closely related keys. Given how unusual they are, modulations to unrelated, or to a relate dkey in a subtle way, are especially attention-grabbing. 

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

  • Direct, distant modulations to “distant” keys, especially modulations by half-step, whole step, or tritone
  • Subtle modulations through pivot chords, secondary dominants, or through gradual added notes (“harmonic gating”
  • Undulating phrasing between keys that share few common notes (e.g., alternating major triads with roots a tritone apart), temporarily depriving listeners of a tonal center

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

  • Placement: …
  • 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: Music theorist Scott Murphy has identified a trend of film composers using a “major tritone progression” (alternating between two major triads whose roots are a tritone apart) to signify distance and unfamiliarity (e.g. outer space, aliens, etc.). This progression appeared frequently across our dataset of listener frisson moments.

Our data indicates than when you abruptly change the mode of a piece, this can sometimes startle listeners to the point of frisson. This method is effective because Western music listeners are highly sensitive to modal or “scalar” shifts, even between modes that differ by just one flatted or sharp scale degree. Given how unusual they are, this makes leaps by larger melodic intervals especially attention grabbing. 

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

  • Ionian-to-Lydian, Aeolian-to-Dorian, and Ionian-to-Mixolyidan scalar shifts 
  • Scalar shifts between “distant” modes involving significant changes in accidentals (e.g. Phyrgian to Lydian)
  • Scalar shifts featuring relative mode changes (i.e. without changing accidentals, as in CM Ionian to Dm Dorian) or parallel mode changes (same tonal center and minimal change in accidentals by following the circle of fifths, e.g. E Aeolian to E Dorian)

Don’t interpret this to mean that any scalar shift will work. Our data suggests that when using this technique, 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
Anecdote: We frequently observed listeners reacting to shifts into and out of the Lydian and Dorian modes. The raised 4th in the Lydian mode is especially ear-catching; listeners regularly describe this mode as sounding “magical” and “wondrous”. Similarly, the contrast of the major 6th with the minor 3rd and 7th in the Dorian mode can be especially moving for listeners, who often describe this contrast as “bittersweet”. 

Our data indicates than when you create an establish-reinforce-violate phrasing pattern, this can often startle listeners to the point of frisson. This method is effective because listeners are highly susceptive to repetition in music and generally expect a pattern to continue once it has been established. This makes especially attention-grabbing when a repeated pattern is dramatically disrupted.

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

  • “Local” establish-reinforce-violate patterns involving repeated antecedent phrases followed by a surprising consequence phrase
  • “Global” establish-reinforce-violate patterns involved parallel sections of a piece (e.g. across three choruses of a pop or rock song)

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

  • Placement: Interrupt a repeated phrase mid-repetition or use skipped beats to make the timing of a consequent phrase as jarring as possible for listeners
  • Set-up: Introduce new melodic material and radically change the texture and timbre palette during a consequent phrase to make the change as conspicuous as possible for listeners
  • Follow-up: Follow establish-reinforce-violate patterns with stable melodic and harmonic material to create space for a positive listener appraisal response
Anecdote: Choral composer Eric Whitacre has called out this phrasing technique as one of his go-to frisson devices. As Whitacre stated in an interview, “I’m convinced it’s less because of the harmony and the quality, more just the phenomenon of establishing a pattern for the human brain. It all has more to do with the architecture of the experience [identical the first two times, unexpectedly different the third] than the actual sound itself.” 

Our data indicates that when you abruptly and drastically change the rhythm or tempo of a song, this can often startle listeners to the point of frisson. This method is effective because its highly disorienting for audiences when they lost the metric pulse of a piece. This makes dramatic shifts in rhythmic emphasis and complexity especially attention-grabbing.

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

  • Sudden shifts from unsyncopated to syncopated rhythms, especially in the baseline
  • Abrupt increases in rhythmic complexity through diminution or polyrhythms
  • Dramatic switching between expressive rubato and straight rhythms (e.g. a tempo)

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

  • Placement: 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 as jarring as possible
  • Set-up: Precede rhythmic changes with dramatic holds and pauses or skipped beats to make them as conspicuous as possible
  • Follow-up: Pair rhythmic and tempo changes with the restatement of a familiar theme or other stable melodic material to create space for a positive listener 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 music for Frank Zappa, is worth a read as you think about how to harness the potential of violations of rhythmic expectations.

Our data indicates than when you suddenly and drastically change or expand the timbre palette of a song, this can often startle listeners to the point of frisson. This method is effective because listeners are highly sensitive to the introduction of new voices or voice-like timbres, or timbres that have a different overtone resonance distribution as compared to the previously featured instruments.

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

  • Entrances by unusual vocalists (e.g Freddie Mercury’s growl, Dolly Parton’s vibrato, Jonsi’s falsetto, etc.) or a second vocalist whose voice differs dramatically from a previously introduced vocalist (e.g. male vs. female singer, older vs. younger singer, etc.)
  • Entrances by voice-like instruments (e.g. saxophone, oboe, electric guitar, etc.)
  • Entrances by instruments from a different family from the preceding musical context (e.g. brass entrance after string section, keyboard entrance after percussion section, string entrance after woodwind section, etc.)

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

  • Placement: Introduce new timbres at the end of clearly telegraphed cadences or natural song transition points to prevent them from being heard as overly disruptive
  • Set-up: Precede new timbre entrances with dramatic pauses, holds, or quiet transition sections to make them as conspicuous as possible
  • Follow-up: Pair new timbre entrances with melodic material that retains the same harmonic progression or key of the previous section to provide enough stability for a positive listener appraisal response

Our data indicates than when you suddenly and radically change the musical texture of a piece, this can often startle listeners to the point of frisson. This method is effective because our brains use musical texture to help us prioritize between different sounds. This makes it especially attention-grabbing when there is a sudden shift in the number and type of lead vs. supporting lines that complicates prioritization.

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

  • Sudden shifts from full ensemble to soloist (or vice versa)
  • Sudden shifts from monophonic to homophonic texture (or vice versa)
  • Sudden shifts from homophonic to polyphonic texture (or vice versa)

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

  • Placement: Pair texture changes with new melodic material and timbres to make them as conspicuous as possible 
  • Set-up: Use dynamics and rhythmic changes (e.g. introducing a new texture on a syncopated upbeat) to make textural shifts less predictable
  • Follow-up: Introduce pauses or mini-transition sections between texture changes to disorient listeners and create space for a positive listener appraisal response after the new texture is introduced

Our data indicates that when you suddenly and radically change the loudness of your music, especially in the 1-4 kHz range, this can often startle listeners to the point of frisson. This method is effective because listeners are highly sensitive to loudness. Statistically significant peaks or low points compared to the previous decibel level of a passage are especially attention-grabbing.

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

  • Sudden increases in loudness, i.e. subito forte
  • Sudden decreases in loudness, although these are much less frequent than increases
  • Sudden shifts in the amount of the spectrum used in the music

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

  • Placement: Pair sudden decreases in loudness with other changes in texture, rhythm et.c to make them conspicious 
  • Set-up: Use fast-attack, percussive timbres and precede loud stabs with slow, quiet sections or silence pauses to enhance the dynamic contrast
  • Follow-up: Follow sudden increases in loudness with a familiar theme or stable harmonic progression to create space for a positive listener appraisal response
Anecdote: In the context of the famous “loudness wars” and overuse of compression affecting the music industry, 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.”

Listen to thousands more example clips in our Frisson Database