Surprise

Fulfill a listener expectation in an unexpected way

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

Definition

When an artist gives a listener leading information about what is going to happen next, then fulfills that expectation in a way that is different (and better) than expected. This takes two forms: guiding listeners to expect one form of resolution but then delivering another type (e.g. a Picardy cadence), or making listeners think a resolution will never come but then abruptly delivering it (e.g. vamping a filler phrase indefinitely then suddenly transitioning to a new section)A surprise has to contribute to the flow of a song for frisson to occurIf a surprise is too random or used too many times, this will just annoy listeners. There is a fine line between a chills-inducing vs. over-done surprise; artistry is required.

Listen to examples below 

Mechanism

When musicians use the Surprise pattern, 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: Sonic Surprise
Listen to examples below 

When an artist deliver an anticipated resolution but radically alters the frequency content, sound intensity, and/or sound pressure of the note. In chills-inducing passages, the most reliable ways we see artists pull this off are:

  • Entrance of a “contrasting” timbre: where an artist delivers an anticipated note but on a new timbre whose frequency resonance distribution differs from the previous texture by certain absolute and relative ratios learned by the Qbrio AI (e.g., vocalist vs. instrument, acoustic vs. electronic, male vs. female singer, etc.) 
  • Abrupt broadening or contracting of the frequency range: where an artist delivers an anticipated note but changes the amount of audio spectrum occupied by the music by certain absolute and relative amounts (e.g. expanded orchestration that fills in high treble, turning a high-pass filter on to restrict low bass, etc.) 
  • Certain large changes in dynamics: where an artist delivers an anticipated note but changes the decibel level to such an extent that it differs from the previous section by certain absolute and relative percentages (e.g. loud, fast-attack stab after a silent pause, drop out from loud full ensemble to quiet soloist, etc.) 

    Don’t interpret this technique as a “hack” that always results in listener chills. Just ratcheting up the volume, for example, won’t automatically “work” by itself. Artistry is required in the set-up, follow-up, and execution. 

    Technique #2: Harmonic Surprise

    When an artist delivers an anticipated resolution but alters the chord type and/or structure around the root note. In chills-inducing passages, the most reliable ways we see artists pull this off include:

    • Certain uses of modal interchange: where an artist resolves a clearly signaled diatonic cadence, but for the first time in a piece introduces a borrowed chord right before the tonic (e.g. ii-II-I, bVI-bVII-I) or on the tonic itself (e.g. iv-v-I) and draws attention to the unexpected chord with orchestration and dynamics 
    • Novel harmonizations: where an artist delivers an anticipated resolution but changes the harmonization by a certain absolute amount (e.g., unaccompanied to harmonized lead line) or to a chord type that had not previously been used in the piece (e.g., major triads to diminished chords)
    • Transitions from inharmonic to harmonic sounds: where an artist delivers consonant, pitched notes after a passage of dissonant, un-pitched noise, but through a transition that creates certain absolute and relative changes in the amount of harmonic overtones and tone-to-noise ratios
    Don’t interpret this technique as a “hack” that always results in listener chills. Just using a deceptive cadence, for example, won’t automatically “work” by itself. Artistry is required in the set-up, follow-up, and execution. 

    Technique #3: Tonal Surprise

    When an artist delivers an anticipated resolution but resolves to music to a different key center than the one anticipated. In chills-inducing passages, the most reliable ways we see artists pull this off include:

    • Smooth modal shifts: where an artist delivers the anticipated root note at the end of a well-signaled cadence, but at the same time modulates to a parallel or relative mode that minimizes changes in accidentals and enables a smooth transition without undermining the release (e.g. FM to Fm, CM to Am) 
    • Certain “remote” modulations: where an artist sets up a conventional cadence and then, instead of resolving to the tonic, directly transposes to a new key that is “far away” on the circle fifths but whose root is close enough to the original tonic to maintain the musical flow (e.g. half step, whole step, minor third shifts) 
    • Resolution of prolonged tonal ambiguity: where an artist builds tension within a passage that is tonally ambiguous or chromatic, then resolves both the harmonic tension and tonal ambiguity simultaneously (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 always results in listener chills. Just shifting the music up a half step, for example, won’t automatically “work” by itself. Artistry is required in the set-up, follow-up, and execution.

    Technique #4: Rhythmic Surprise

    Listen to examples below 

    When an artist deliver an anticipated resolution but radically alters the tempo and/or rhythmic emphasis on the tonic note. In chills-inducing passages, the most reliable ways we see artists pull this off are:

    • On-beat vs. off-beat emphasis: where an artist resolves to the tonic “early” on the upbeat after previous on-beat emphasis, switches from a straight to a syncopated bass line on the tonic, or moves repeatedly in and out of syncopation after the tonic, all of which calls listener attention to and embellishes the resolution
    • Even vs. odd-numbered subdivisions: where an artist features a hemiola on the tonic that shifts emphasis between duple and tuple meters, or features a one-off instance of added (or skipped) beats on tonic, all of which calls listener attention to and embellishes the resolution
    • Certain tempo changes: where an artists features subtle shifts involving a 4:3 or 3:2 BPM ratio that causes the beat to change from being felt as straight quarter notes to tripltes, or abruptly switches back and forth between straight and rubato passages, all of which calls listener attention to and embellishes the resolution

    Don’t interpret this technique as a “hack” that always results in listener chills. Just shifting to a syncopated bass line, for example, won’t automatically “work” by itself. Artistry is required in the set-up, follow-up, and execution.

    Technique #5: Melodic Surprise

    Listen to examples below 

    When an artist deliver an anticipated resolution but significantly changes the interval size and/or melodic material on the tonic. In chills-inducing passages, the most reliable ways we see artists pull this off are:

    • 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 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 well-signaled cadence that features 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 early in a piece, then after passing through other sections and setting up a prominent climax or transition moment, unexpectedly brings the theme back with expanded orchestration and dynamics that elevate it into a new version of itself

    Don’t interpret this technique as a “hack” that always results in listener chills. A large leap after a series of half steps, for example, won’t automatically “work” by itself. Artistry is required in the set-up, follow-up, and execution.

    Examples of Technique 1 - 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 - 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 - 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 - 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: 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