Surprise

Fulfill listener expectations in an unexpected way

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

Definition

Listen to examples below 

Surprise is when an artist guides a listener to form an expectation about what is going to happen next in a song, but then the artist fulfills the listener’s expectation in a way that is different (and better) than expected. This takes two forms: guiding listeners to expect that nothing new is going to happen and then suddenly introducing something new (e.g. vamping a filler phrase then abruptly transitioning to a new section), or guiding listeners to expect one type of resolution but then delivering a different resolution instead (e.g. a Picardy cadence). A surprise has to contribute to the flow of a song for frisson to occurIf an artist subverts expectations randomly or too many times in a row, this will likely diminish the effectiveness of a surprise. There is a fine line between a chills-inducing vs. annoying surprise; artistry is required.

Mechanism

When musicians use the Surprise pattern effectively, they trigger a listener’s startle response. This involuntary reaction prompts listeners to hold their breath, duck their head, close their eyes, release adrenaline, and take other defensive measures. Unexpected changes in sound are effective for prompting this response because hearing is the fastest of the five senses. While light travels faster than sound, it is processed more slowly in the eye than sound in the ear. Whether its an unseen door slamming or a musical surprise, listeners’ brains automatically take a better-safe-than-sorry approach and activate this response when presented with unanticipated changes in sound .

Technique #1: Create a sonic surprise

Listen to examples below 

The first Surprise technique involves startling listeners with deviations in dynamics, timbre, and frequency content. In chills-inducing passages, the most reliable ways we see artists pull this off are:

  • Large changes in dynamics: where an artist features a loud stab after a quiet section or silent pause (intensified with compression and fast-attack instruments like percussion), but also less frequently where an artist features a sudden decreases in volume (especially during the bridge in pop songs)
  • Certain initial timbre entrances: where an artist introduces a “contrasting” timbre whose frequency content differs from previous texture (e.g., male vs. female singer, acoustic vs. electronic instrument, falsetto vs. chest voice) or a new vocalist or voice-like timbre (e.g. saxophone, cello, oboe)
  • Abrupt broadening or contracting of the frequency range: where an artist adds or takes away low bass and/or high treble via orchestration (e.g. transitions from soloist to full ensemble or vice versa) or production techniques (e.g. using EQ and filters to strengthen and fill in parts of the spectrum)

    Don’t interpret this technique as a “hack” that automatically results in chills. A vocal entrance won’t “work” by itself. Whether listeners experience frisson depends on the preceding music and certain features like the change in harmonic vs. inharmonic overtones. 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.  

    Technique #2: Create a harmonic surprise

    Listen to examples below 

    The second Surprise technique involves startling listeners with deviations in chord progressions and structures. In chills-inducing passages, the most reliable ways we see artists pull this off include:

    • Modal interchange: where the artist feature a borrowed chord before a resolution (e.g. ii-II-I), a “backdoor” resolution (e.g. bVI-bVII-I), or a Picardy third resolution (e.g. iv-v-I), all of which make the tonic “brighter” than expected and the release more satisfying for listeners
    • New chord structure: where the artist abruptly harmonizes a previously unharmonized lead line or introduces a new chord type on a release (e.g. diminished chord after a section the featured major triads), pairing chord change with sparse arrangements to focus listeners on the harmonies
    • Inharmonic noise to harmonic pitch: where the artist temporarily features a dissonant burst or swell, after which the artist resolves back to harmonic pitch
    Don’t interpret this technique as a hack that automatically results in chills. A deceptive cadence won’t just “work” by itself. Whether listeners experience frisson from a harmonic surprise depends on contrast with the preceding section and timbres, arrangement, and dynamics during execution and follow-up. Artistry is required. Consult the Frisson 101 page for tips on how other artists have used this technique.

    Technique #3: Create a tonal surprise

    Listen to examples below 

    The third Surprise technique involves startling listeners with deviations in modes and key centers. In chills-inducing passages, the most reliable ways we see artists pull this off include:

    • Modal shifts: where at the end of a conventional, well-signaled cadence the artist modulates to a parallel or relative mode that minimizes changes in accidentals (e.g. FM to Fm, CM to Am), and after which the artist immediately continues the musical flow to smooth the transition and reinforce the new modal sound
    • “Remote” modulations: where at the end of a cadence the artist directly transposes the tonal center by half step, whole step, or minor third (all of which are far apart on circle of fifths with few shared notes), typically embellishing with skipped beats and bass line movement that widens the pitch changes 
    • Resolution of tonal ambiguity: where an artist establishes an unambiguous tonal center after a tonally ambiguous, pantriadic, or atonal sequence (e.g., in “The Long and Winding Road” the verse hints at EbM and Cm with seventh chords and added 9ths and 11ths, but doesn’t confirm EbM until the last note)
    Don’t interpret this technique as a “hack” that automatically results in chills. Just shifting the music up a half step won’t “work” by itself. Whether listeners experience frisson depends on the contrast with the preceding music and how the dynamics, timbres, and pitch change in the execution and follow-up. Artistry is required. Consult the Frisson 101 page for tips on how other artists have used this technique.

    Technique #4: Create a rhythmic surprise

    Listen to examples below 

    The fourth Surprise technique involves startling listeners with deviations in rhythmic emphasis, subdivisions, and tempo. In chills-inducing passages, the most reliable ways we see artists pull this off are:

    • On-beat vs. off-beat emphasis: sudden changes from straight to syncopated rhythms in the bass line at the start of a new section, repeated switching into and out of syncopation in the lead line, or an “early” entrance on the upbeat of a phrase repetition after previous on-beat emphasis
    • Even and odd-numbered subdivisions: hemiolas that shift emphasis from duple and tuple meters or one-off instances of added (or skipped) beats, all of which are emphasized with texture and dynamic changes to call listener attention to the rhythmic shift
    • Certain tempo changes: subtle shifts involving a 4:3 or 3:2 BPM ratio that cause the beat to shift from being felt as straight quarter notes to a triplet quarter note pattern, large unprepared shifts in BPM (dramatic increases and decreases can both work), or picking the tempo back up after a rubato passage

    Don’t interpret this technique as a hack that automatically results in chills. Just switching to a syncopated baseline won’t “work” by itself. Whether listeners experience frisson depends on the contrast with the preceding music, certain ratios in the rhythmic and tempo changes, and the follow-up. Artistry is required. Consult the Frisson 101 page for tips on how other artists have used this technique.

    Technique #5: Create a melodic surprise

    Listen to examples below 

    The fifth Surprise technique involves startling listeners with interval size, phrasing, and themes. In chills-inducing passages, the most reliable ways we see artists pull this off include:

    • Establish-reinforce-violate phrasing: where an artist repeats an antecedent phrase (or section of a song) twice or more in a row, then instead of another repetition the artist introduces a radically different consequent phrase (or new section), often mid-repetition or via a skipped beat to enhance the contrast
    • Sudden disjunct motion: where at the end of a conventional, well-signaled cadence that featured steps and small intervals, an artist abruptly introduces a leap by a fifth or more on the tonic note or chord, often in a contrary direction to the previous contour to enhance the contrast 
    • Return of a theme: where an artists seeds a theme, then after passing through other sections and setting up a prominent climax or transition moment, the artist brings back the theme, usually with expanded orchestration and dynamics to elevate it into a new version of itself

    Don’t interpret this technique as a hack that automatically results in chills. Just featuring a leap by a seventh after a series of half steps won’t “work” by itself. Whether listeners experience frisson depends on the set-up and follow-up and certain aspects of orchestration and note length during execution. Artistry is required. Consult the Frisson 101 and Library pages for tips and examples of how other artists have used this technique.

    Examples of Technique 1 - Create a sonic surprise

    Genre

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

    Song

    Heart Attack
    Sweet Disposition
    Everbody Hurts
    Windows are Rolled Down
    Electric (feat. Khalid)
    Sea of Voices
    Requiem – Confutatis
    Apotheosis (Journey)
    Silver for Monsters (The Witcher 3)
    The Bare Necessities (Jungle Book trailer)

    Artist

    Demi Lovato
    The Temper Trap
    R.E.M.
    Amos Lee
    Alina Baraz
    Porter Robinson
    Mozart
    Austin Wintory
    Marcin Pryzybylowicz
    The Hit House

    Frisson Moment Reported by Listeners

    3:01
    0:36
    1:25
    1:46
    3:28
    3:14
    0:20
    3:16
    1:24
    1:23

    Examples of Technique 2 - Create a harmonic surprise

    Genre

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

    Song

    Can’t Stop the Feeling
    Morning Bell
    Jeremy
    Midnight in Montgomery
    Slow Dancing in the Dark
    Magnets (Jon Hopkins Remix)
    Nearer My God To Thee
    Flying Over Africa
    The Bells of Notre Dame
    Space Chords

    Artist

    Justin Timberlake
    Radiohead
    Pearl Jam
    Alan Jackson
    Joji
    Disclosure
    BYU Vocal Point
    John Barry
    Alan Menken
    Blue Devils

    Frisson Moment Reported by Listeners

    0:59
    0:23
    1:11
    1:10
    3:03
    4:20
    2:36
    1:47
    6:05
    2:06 (return to pitch)

    Examples of Technique 3 - Create a tonal surprise

    Genre

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

    Song

    Wings
    You Oughta Know
    One
    Austin
    Un-Break My Heart
    Y
    When David Heard
    The Lighting of the Beacons
    Waving Through A Window
    The Long and Winding Road

    Artist

    Little Mix
    Alanis Morissette
    U2 & Mary J. Blige
    Blake Shelton
    Toni Braxton
    iamamiwhoami
    Eric Whitacre
    Howard Shore
    Ben Platt & Original Cast
    The Beatles

    Frisson Moment Reported by Listeners

    1:01 (Em to EM)
    0:54 (F#m to F#M)
    0:30 (Am to CM)
    2:47 (GM to AM)
    3:12 (Bm to Dm)
    5:49 (Bm to BM)
    1:40 (confirms Dm)
    4:56 (confirms D dorian)
    3:01 (Em to Fm)
    0:39 (confirms EbM)

    Examples of Technique 4 - Create a rhythmic surprise

    Genre

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

    Song

    Just The Way You Are
    Shut Up Kiss Me
    All Is Violent, All Is Bright
    Sold (The Gundy County Auction)
    44 More
    Says
    Appalachian Spring – Doppio
    The Middle of the World (Moonlight)
    Chase (E.T.)
    Bubble Toes

    Artist

    Bruno Mars
    Angel Olsen
    God Is An Astronaut
    John Michael Montgomery
    Logic
    Nils Frahm
    Aaron Copland
    Nicholas Britell
    John Williams
    Jack Johnson

    Frisson Moment Reported by Listeners

    1:27
    1:25
    3:11
    0:25
    0:54
    7:16
    2:09
    0:37
    4:28
    0:47

    Examples of Technique 5: Create a melodic surprise

    Genre

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

    Song

    Edge of Glory
    Someone You Loved
    Deconstruction
    From This Moment On
    Pyscho (feat. Ty Dolla $ign)
    No Fear No More
    Adagio of Spartacus and Phyrgia
    Tryouts (Rudy)
    Ladies In Their Sensitivities
    Honey I’m Good

    Artist

    Lady Gaga
    Lewis Capaldi
    Devin Townsend Project
    Shania Twain
    Post Malone
    Madeon
    Khachaturian
    Jerry Goldsmith
    Stephen Sondheim
    Andy Grammar

    Frisson Moment Reported by Listeners

    4:00
    0:25
    7:15
    2:21
    1:08
    2:01
    6:12 (theme returns)
    3:52 (theme returns)
    2:55
    2:21

    Listens to more examples in the Qbrio Library