Suspense

Violate a listener expectation in a way that cultivates anticipation

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

Definition

When an artist gives a listener leading but incomplete information about what is going to happen next, encouraging the listener to “fill in the gaps” and anticipate a certain outcome. This takes two forms: tipping off what is going to happen but not when (e.g. holding on the dominant at the end of a cadence, prompting the listener to yearn for the tonic), or when something is going to happen but not what (e.g. setting up a dramatic build up, prompting the listener to anticipate an upcoming climax). Suspense has to contribute to the flow of a song for frisson to occur. If an artist prolongs suspense for too long without providing any relief, this will just frustrate listeners. There is a fine line between chills-inducing vs. annoying suspense; artistry is required.

Listen to examples below 

Mechanism

When musicians use the Suspense pattern, they trigger a listener’s neural “reward system”. This system, which centers around the pleasurable neurotransmitter dopamine, evolved to motivate individuals to pursue and engage in survival-enhancing activities like eating and reproducing. This system has anticipatory and consummatory components, resulting in separate dopamine releases in advance of, during the experience of, survival-enhancing activities. Researchers have confirmed that a release of musical tension can function as an abstract reward that triggers these anticipatory and consummatory reward systems. 

Technique #1: Use Sonic Elements to Create Suspense

Listen to examples below 

The first Suspense technique involves using timbre, texture, and frequency content to put listeners on edge. In chills-inducing passages, the most reliable ways we see artists pull off this technique are:

  • “Missing” texture elements: when an artist takes away the baseline or accompaniment near the end of a progression (usually using production tools to abruptly chop or mute the texture so there is no natural decay), prompting listeners to anticipate the return of the “missing” elements on the resolution
  • Sustained “high-energy” sounds: where an artist features prolonged loudness, dissonance, high pitch, or vibrato/distortion on the dominant or leading tone at the end of an obvious cadence (or increases them gradually during a build-up), prompting listeners to yearn for the energy to dissipate
  • Certain sonic illusions: where an artist features a prolonged Shephard tone or glissando that create the sensation of constantly rising pitch and never-arriving resolution, typically sounded on string instruments or electronic white-noise risers that hold up well in higher registers

Don’t interpret this technique as a “hack” that automatically results in chills. Just inserting a white-noise riser by itself won’t work. Whether listeners experience frisson depends on the preceding music and certain features of the frequency content in high-energy sounds. Artistry is required in the set-up, follow-up, and execution. Consult the Frisson 101 page for tips on how other artists have used this technique.

Technique #2: Use Harmony to Create Suspense 

Listen to examples below 

The second Suspense technique involves using chord structures and progressions to put listeners on edge. In chills-inducing passages, the most reliable ways we see artists pull off this technique are:

  • Non-chord tones: when an artists intensifies the dissonance in a progression by adding certain extra chromatic or diatonic notes to a chord (especially upper extensions, clusters, and appoggiaturas) or holding these notes across chords (especially suspensions and pedal points)
  • Symmetric sequences: when an artist cultivates anticipation by establishing a repeating pattern that leads to a resolution via chromatic pre-dominant chords (e.g., V/V-V-I), diatonic transpositions (e.g,. descending circle-of-fifths), or pantriadic “cycles” (e.g., repeated root movement by major thirds)
  • Interrupted progressions: where an artist enhances anticipation by initially “thwarting” a conventional progression (i.e. in place of the tonic there is a deceptive cadence, half cadence, 6-4 inversion, etc.), then quickly returns to the dominant and resolves to the tonic as expected 

Don’t interpret this technique as a “hack” that automatically results in chills. Just adding a neighbor note to the dominant won’t work. 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 this technique.

Technique #3: Use Tonality to Create Suspense

Listen to examples below 

The third Suspense technique involves using modal interchange, chromaticism, and pantriadicism to put listeners on edge. In chills-inducing passages, the most reliable ways we see artists pull this off are:

  • Modal interchange: when an artist features borrowed chords from the parallel key near the end of a well-signaled cadence, which can prompt listeners to question whether the resolution will arrive and yearn for a return back to the original key when the resolution does arrive
  • Tonal ambiguity: when an artist abruptly features suspended chords, inverted chords, or diminished seventh chords at the start of a new section to create tonal uncertainty (e.g., missing 3rd in sus4 chord masks major vs. minor quality), which can then prompt listeners to yearn for a return to tonal certainty
  • Momentary chromaticism: when an artist features a temporary shift to pantriadic or even atonal harmonic movement near the end of a progression, which can then prompt listeners to yearn for a return to diatonic harmony (and which artists often deliver at the end of the phrase or section)
Don’t interpret this technique as a “hack” that automatically results in chills. Just featuring a IV-iv-I progression by itself won’t always work. Whether listeners experience frisson depends on the preceding music and the length and intensity of the tonal shifts. 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 Resolution pattern.

Technique #4: Use Rhythm to Create Suspense

Listen to examples below 

The fourth Suspense technique involves using tempo, meter. and rhythmic complexity to put listeners on edge. In chills-inducing passages, the most reliable ways we see artists pull off this technique are:

  • Rhythmic “delay”: when an artist features “pregnant’ holds and pauses, non-linear rubato slowing of the tempo, or repeated augmentation (e.g. sixteenth notes to quarter notes to half notes), placed at the end of obvious build-ups or well-signaled cadences progression and emphasized with dynamics and texture
  • Rhythmic “acceleration”: when an artist features repeated diminution (e.g. quarter notes to eighth notes to sixteenth notes) or repeated shifts to shorter and shorter meters (e.g. 4/4 to 3/4 to 2/4), both of which a sense of “acceleration” into the tonic that heightens anticipation
  • Rhythmic “dissonance”: when an artist features sustained metric contrast or polyrhythms (usually one syncopated and one straight), paired with a conventional harmonic progressions that makes the clashing rhythms increasingly dissonant and a release that returns to the music to rhythmic stability

Don’t interpret this technique as a “hack” that automatically results in chills. Just de-accelerating gradually before a climax by itself won’t work. Whether listeners experience frisson depends on the preceding music and rate and amount of tempo or rhythmic change. 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 Resolution pattern.

Technique #5: Use Melody to Create Suspense

Listen to examples below 

The fifth Suspense technique involves using contour, tuning, and type of melodic motion to put listeners on edge. In chills-inducing passages, the most reliable ways we see artists pull this off are:

  • Rising contours: where an artist features a lead or bass line that moves continuously upward by steps, or that repeats a motif several times in quick succession and leaps up by a consistent interval on each repetition (usually a third or an octave)
  • Gliding motion: where at the end of a cadence that previously only featured discrete motion by steps and leap, an artist switches to continuous motion (glissando, pitch bend, melisma) and glides into the tonic (sometimes even hitting the tonic slightly flat or sharp on purpose before gliding to the anticipated note)
  • Elisions: where after a cadence resolves as expected to the tonic, an artist immediately uses that same tonic note to begin a new phrase (often featuring the return of a familiar theme to smooth the transition), thereby simultaneously teasing and delaying full closure 

Don’t interpret this technique as a “hack” that automatically results in chills. Just gliding from the dominant to the tonic won’t work by itself. Whether listeners experience frisson depends on the set-up and follow-up and certain aspects of the dynamics and spectral content during execution. Artistry is required. Consult the Frisson 101 and Library pages for tips and examples on how other artists have used this technique.

Examples of Technique 1 - Sonic Suspense

Genre

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

Song

Good As Hell
Oh Comely
Cochise
My Church
Girl On Fire
Silver
Caprice No. 24
The Eyeland (Lost)
Guns and Ships (Hamilton)
Retrograde

Artist

Lizzo
Neutral Milk Hotel
Audioslave
Maren Morris
Alicia Keys
Caribou
Paganini (Heifetz)
Michael Giacchino
Leslie Odom Jr. & Daveed Diggs
James Blake

Frisson Moment Reported by Listeners

2:05-2:09
5:53-5:58
2:57-3:07
2:05-2:30
0:41-0:44
3:23-3:30
5:37-5:57
1:32-1:52
0:27-0:31
1:35-1:38

Example of Technique 2 - Harmonic Suspense

Genre

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

Song

Welcome Home, Son
Hallelujah
My Immortal
Live Like You Were Dying
Lovin’ You
Sleepwalker
With A Lily In Your Hand
Bye (Close Encounters)
I Am Moana (Song of the Ancestors)
Mary Did You Know

Artist

Radical Face
Jeff Buckley
Evanescence
Tim McGraw
Minnie Riperton
Illenium
Eric Whitacre
John Williams
Rachel House, Auili’i Cravalho
Peter Hollens

Frisson Moment Reported by Listeners

1:19-1:23
5:56-6:13
2:55-3:05
4:12-4:22
1:15-1:18
1:16-1:22
0:07-0:10
4:31-4:39
2:18-2:22
2:11-2:17

Examples of Technique 3 - Tonal Suspense

Genre

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

Song

Kiss From A Rose
Welcome to the Black Parade
Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now
Speechless
Dreams and Nightmares
Positive
Also Sprach Zarathustra
Reunited (An American Tail)
Red & Black (Les Miserables)
Never Enough

Artist

Seal
My Chemical Romance
Starship
Dan + Shay
Meek Mill
Hot Chip
Richard Strauss
James Horner
Eddie Redmayne
Loren Allred

Frisson Moment Reported by Listeners

2:40-3:01
3:29-3:32
1:00-1:05
2:49-2:53
1:36-1:48
2:49
0:27
3:14-3:17
3:58-4:12
2:31-2:36

Examples of Technique 4 - Rhythmic Suspense

Genre

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

Song

Despacito
High Hopes
Tender Surrender
9 to 5
Feel The Vibe
Five Hours
Violin Concerto No. 1 – Mvt. 1
Main Title (The Matrix Reloaded)
Once There Was a Hushpuppy
Conga

Artist

Luis Fonsi & Daddy Yankee
Panic! At The Disco
Steve Vai
Dolly Parton
BJ the Chicago Kid
Deorro
Mendelssohn (Hilary Hahn)
Don Davis
Dan Romer & Benh Zeitlin
Gloria Estefan

Frisson Moment Reported by Listeners

1:01-1:03
0:58
2:36-2:40
0:09-0:16
1:49-1:52
0:31-0:38
7:56-8:01
0:48-1:00
1:12-1:20
0:01-0:17

Examples of Technique 5: Melodic Suspense

Genre

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

Song

Firework
Everybody Talks
Woodstock
Cry Pretty
The Knowing
Symphony (feat. Zara Larsson)
Danse Macabre, Op. 40
Top Gun Anthem (Top Gun)
Lot’s Wife (Caroline or Change)
I’ve Been Loving You Too Long

Artist

Katy Perry
Neon Trees
Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young
Carrie Underwood
The Weeknd
Clean Bandit
Camille Saint-Saëns
Harold Faltermeyer, Steve Stevens
Tonya Pinkins
Otis Redding

Frisson Moment Reported by Listeners

0:38-0:54
0:30-0:32
1:04
2:53-2:55
3:41-3:43
0:52-0:55
5:20-5:23
3:15-3:25
2:41-2:46
0:19-0:21

Listens to more examples in the Qbrio Library