Sunday, January 13, 2008



Towards the end of 1996 I was in Hamburg visiting Warner Bros' German subsidiary, my favorite of all of our international companies. While I was there one of the guys turned me on to a local song that was about to be released but that had no home outside of Europe. I listened to it and got goosebumps. It sounded like a smash-- but certainly not a sure thing for unadventurous American radio. Because it was... well... like opera. But it transcended category and is intensely emotive. It was a duet by Andrea Bocelli and Sarah Brightman, "Time to Say Goodbye," itself a remake of "Con te Partiro" (I'll go With You"). It was a farewell song for a German national hero, a boxing champion named Henry Maske, enough of a story to guarantee a #1 on the German charts. But in America? Henry who? Opera? And yet... the song had something... I couldn't put my finger on it and I didn't know a word for it, but I was sure it had that special element that can touch a universal soul. I brought an advance copy back to my company. I played it for our A&R department-- blank stares. I played it for our promotion and marketing departments-- more blank stares. Even the people who liked it said it would never mean anything to anyone in the U.S.

I was scheduled to take a 4 hour dj slot on a radio station in L.A. that was closing down. I opened my set with "Time to Sat Goodbye." Four hours later the phones were still ringing from woman, some sobbing, about the beauty of the song. I was more sure than ever it would be a smash. No one at Warner Bros agreed with me. They just said radio would never play it; it might be great but if It couldn't get any exposure, what good would it do? I was the president of the company but I let my team talk me out of it.

It remained at #1 in Germany for 14 weeks and broke every sales record for singles there and in several other countries! It went to #2 in the U.K. and when Danny Goldberg at Mercury Records had the good sense to release it in the U.S. the album, Romanza went platinum and made it into the Top 40. It got exposure in America in in several films and on TV shows from South Park and Sesame Street to The Sopranos. Perhaps if I knew the word frisson at the time I could have better explained the inevitability of the song's success to my colleagues.
fris·son     [free-sohn; Fr. free-sawn]
–noun, plural -sons     [-sohnz; Fr. -sawn]
a sudden, passing sensation of excitement; a shudder of emotion; thrill: The movie offers the viewer the occasional frisson of seeing a character in mortal danger.
[Origin: 1770–80; < F: shiver, shudder, OF friçons (pl.) < LL fricti?nem, acc. of fricti? shiver (taken as deriv. of fr?gére to be cold), L: massage, friction]

Sandy Pearlman has been one of my closest friends since 1965. He introduced me to music. Probably best known as the producer (and writer) for Blue Oyster Cult, he also produced albums for The Clash, The Dictators, Pavlov's Dog, Dream Syndicate and many other artists. Yesterday he told me about a talk he and another friend of ours, Prof. Don McLean, Dean, Schulich School of Music of McGill University in Montreal. The two of them wrote an abstract of the talk they're planning on the application of the frisson concept to music. They said I could publish it at DWT.


In music, frisson is experienced by the listener as an inexplicable moment of intense excitement, variously defined as ‘a shiver, chill, cold shudder, thrill, tingle; shaking, shakiness, trembling, quivering, vibration …’. Frisson is an experience not voluntarily generated. As in another intimately related context, the “subliminal frisson” that Dracula evokes (Houston 2005:122). What is this phenomenon, and how is it triggered? What elements of musical design and structure contribute to its effect? How does this response compare with other charged psycho-physiological experience? For example, is frisson ultimately experienced as a gating function, opening a gate to the numinous? As in a massive compression of Fear and Trembling, the paradoxical Kierkegaardian moment, access to this noumenon of music seems fleetingly grasped, a glimpse of what could be, with the somewhat disturbing recognition that our relationship to such a state appears involuntary. That the neural and perceptual systems are configured to grasp this effect, and that our relationship to it, whether invoked by the music (legalistic in its compulsion of neural structure) or evoked by the music (extracted from neural structure) is a neural computational process, preprogrammed for activation upon the perception of certain musical information (compare the curious case of the opiate receptors, Pert and Snyder 1973, and subsequent).

As a potential gating function, the reality of frisson poses a challenge to the assumptions and ambitions underlying the existence of a music industry that produces pop commodity objects: musical consumables. As with the sex industry, this raises the question, is music an activity that should never have been industrialized? To which the answer is: only if and when the existential disjunction between the production of ecstasy and the production of consumables is ruled collapsed. For in reality frisson is not—and should not be—that easy to produce. So much so that its occurrence is both rare and often regarded as miraculous: the St. Cecilia effect. Indeed, frisson is so special an occurrence that even in contexts that would seem to demand its ‘regular’ invocation it is not produced with any consistency. Take the case of horror film music: which does not actually much evidence frisson. Rather what we encounter are signals that we should be experiencing frisson. Horror film music often resorts to a playbook of off-the-shelf referential mood induction modules from a vast plunderbox of all the music in the world, to signal the audience: ‘time to get uncanny’. But being merely ‘in the mood’, does not equal the radical neurological event, the dark information function, that is frisson. The deployment of a Theremin, or of decontextualized Bruckner tremolandi, does not accomplish access to the inexplicable Ungrund of Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony itself.

Once again, the ineffable qualities of music do not compute. Or do they? Frisson implies more information in music than can be accounted for. Does Frisson implicate dark information? Heretofore unaccountable content? Ultimately frisson should be a matter of pattern recognition. But what kind of pattern? And to what purpose? Or is ecstasy self-sufficient? Ask St Cecilia.

This paper is intended as a provocative overview of a salient musical and apparently universal psycho-physiological phenomenon, and is part of a larger research project examining relations between musical design and emotional response. (A significant stage of this research will be completed shortly before the CUMS conference, which is one of the reasons we feel presentation would be timely.) In presenting the paper, we set up selected literary and philosophical roots of reference to musical frisson (Heinrich von Kleist, St. Cecilia, or the Power of Music [1810]; Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling and Either/Or [1843]; Thomas Mann, Magic Mountain [1924]; Claude Sautet’s film, Un Coeur en Hiver [1993]).  We then review the (to date still) fairly modest research on the physiological and psychological aspects of this salient musical effect (Panksepp 1995, Blood and Zatorre 2001, Panksepp and Bernatzky 2001, Huron 2006, Levitin 2006, Peretz 2006, Guhn, Hamm, and Zenter 2007), introduce the concept of ‘faux frisson’ in relation to certain decontextualized signaling instances in horror film music and pop music, and provide analytical insight into the design of several powerful moments of frisson from classical, popular, and global/world music.

Sample selected musical excerpts may include:  Bach, Magnificat; Beethoven, Violin Concerto; Berlioz, Requiem; Gounod, Faust; Bruckner, Symphony no.8; Mahler, Symphony no.4; Holst, The Planets; Janacek, Sinfonietta; The Doors, Light My Fire and When the Music’s Over; Patti Smith, Horses and Bird Land; Gordon Lightfoot, The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald; Stan Rogers,The Mary Ellen Carter; Mercan Dede, Breath; Ali Akbar Khan, Raga Marwa. A more comprehensive list of frisson-engendering examples will be distributed as part of the presentation.


Blood, A.J. and Zatorre, R.J. “Intensely pleasurable responses to music correlate with activity in brain regions implicated in reward and emotion.”Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 98 (2001): 11818-11823.

Guhn, Martin; Hamm, Alfons and Zenter, Marcel. Physiological and Musico-Acoustic Correlates of the Chill Response. Music Perception 24:5 (2007): 473-483.

Houston, Gail Turley. From Dickens to ‘Dracula’: Gothic, Economics, and Victorian Fiction. Cambridge, 2005.

Huron, David. “Biological Templates for Musical Experience:  From Fear to Pleasure.” International Symposium on the Neurobiology of Music, unpublished paper, 2006.

Levitin, Daniel J. This is Your Brain on Music: the Science of a Human Obsession. New York: Dutton, 2006.

Panksepp, Jaak. “The emotional sources of ‘chills’ induced by music.” Music Perception 13 (1995): 171-207.

Panksepp, Jaak and Bernatzky, Günther. “Emotional sounds and the brain: the neuro-affective foundations of musical appreciation.” Behavioural Processes 60 (2002): 133-155.

Peretz, Isabelle.  “The nature of music from a biological perspective.”  Cognition 100 (2006) 1-32.

Pert, Candace B. and Snyder, Solomon H. “Properties of Opiate-Receptor Binding in Rat Brain.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 70:8 (1973): 2243-2247.

See if this works for you, Holst's "Mars, Bringer of War" from The Planets. Did you feel the frisson?

Labels: ,


At 9:22 PM, Anonymous Jon Dodson said...

I certainly felt something, but I've always liked this song. I can't help but feel that the experience of music and the experiene of emotion is inherently too subjective to tease out anything universal in our reactions. But maybe I just misunderstand the piece. Maybe frisson is not a universal concept?

At 9:36 PM, Blogger DownWithTyranny said...

You're probably right, Jon. I mean universal is really a lot. Maybe the more frisson-y the song is the universaler it gets. To me "Pounding" by The Doves is powerful but I bet most people would feel more strongly about Springsteen's "Dancing in the Dark," for various reasons-- from exposure to artist identity.

At 10:37 PM, Anonymous Bil said...

HI Howie, I could feel it as long as I didn't look at the screen, yikes, lotsa 666 goin' on there.

I hope you are almost finished with your book AND have found some way to imbed/embed music with it?
I couldn't find frisson in my Copland, "Music and Imagination", I was going to go with endorphins. I will have frisee with my endorphins thank you. Thrilling.

The good news is Mr. Smiley George Will says the Republicans are so Toast. That makes for sweet dreams.

At 2:58 AM, Anonymous Frank Wilhoit said...

For "Ungrund" read "Urgrund" -- and I do not think you meant to imply that Bruckner used a Theremin...?

At 1:38 PM, Blogger Timcanhear said...

Perhaps you could be referring to what John Lennon refers to as "the middle eight" or otherwise known as a "bridge" in popular music or a "bridge passage" in classical music. The bridge is usually in a contrasting key than the original melody. It's that contrast that causes the listnerer to feel a difference in emotion while listening. I'm not certain but this could be what you're referring to.
I know that The Beatles used it progressively, in so many songs.
It's powerful in it's ability to move the listener. Great pop songs of the sixties were identified by having incredible middle eight's. And the best of them appeared usually only once in the song.
Middle eight's are personified in politics by the likes of Barak Obama or John Edwards who stand in between those in the party who who favor polls over idea's, war over peace, recession over prosperity.

At 7:34 PM, Blogger SteveAudio said...

Brilliant piece, Howie.

There are many pieces of music that do that to me, among them many of the ones you mentioned.

But another one is Jeff Buckley covering Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah", about whom I wrote at my place here [blogwhore]:

At 7:31 AM, Anonymous Lauren Oliver said...

Thank you for giving me the word for that tingly thing which made me discard an otherwise promising future in conventional reward.

I myself have been working on a long-form piece about this thing I can finally, finally, finally call 'frisson,' (of course, I can only offer a moron's perspective).

Huge XOX.

At 10:22 PM, Blogger James said...

I submit that to expect frisson to emerge from a youtube version (with ironic Star Wars imagery no less) of a piece designed to be played live on an orchestra's worth of instrumentation in a well-designed auditorium is a bit unrealistic.

At the very least, people should get a copy of the piece from their local library and play it, at a goodly volume, on the best stereo system to which they can get access. It's still not the same as hearing it in person, but your typical computer speakers playing highly compressed audio just ain't gonna cut it. That that CD down to your local high end uber-stereo store and ask them to demo a pair of Martin Logan speakers with it.

At 10:32 AM, Anonymous Joe Max said...

I've gotten frisson from music as varied as the climax of Beethoven's Ninth to Pink Floyd's "The Great Gig in the Sky" to seeing the Ramones on stage for the first time (at the Mabuhay, Howie, I'm sure you were there that night - it's not easy to feel goosebumps while you're pogoing).

I'd really love to read Sandy's thesis - he's right in pointing out the primary question: is there some kind of "law" of inducing the effect that can be reliably applied, or does it arise spontaneously from the mind of the listener? Good question.

At 12:55 PM, Anonymous andykase said...

The piece you provided from Holst is a magnificent example of frisson. However, I must state my preference for another movement from the same Holst piece.

I get unbelievable frisson goosebumps that have to be hammered down from "Jupiter, the Bringer of Peace" (Holtz, The Planets, Op. 32, H. 125, No. 4).
You may recall that this piece was used during the movie "The Right Stuff". When I first watched that incredible movie and heard the fanfare from this piece played during the launch scene of John Glenn's flight (Mercury-Atlas 6) they had to peel me off the ceiling I was so juiced.

At 11:44 PM, Anonymous hauksdottir said...

WARGASM: the feeling of frisson from viewing Picasso's "Guernica" or listening to Holst's "The Bringer of War".

I guess it is a testosterone-laced bath of blood-soaked neurotransmitters if that is what it takes to get those endorphins pumped. :roll eyes: You might have mentioned "Ride of the Valkyries" accompanying the helicopters over 'Nam or the mad scene from "Lucia di Lammermoor" spliced with combat in The Fifth Element to further your argument that death requires music to make it thrilling.

The use of the word 'involuntary' implies the use of 'force', given your examples. Music is a power that does not require subjugation. Surely the presence of death is not the only way to experience frisson!

I'm an artist. I live to create, not to destroy. Perhaps that is why the music which gives me thrills is music by Alan Hohvaness. Symphony 11, "All Men are Brothers" (especially the 4th movement) raises neck hairs and echoes in the diaphragm. Light and laughter and great whales and mountains and celestial gates... all imbued with joy... form an incredible catalog, but the 11th is special.

Other pieces which inspire frisson? "The Lark Ascending" by Vaughn-Williams is achingly sweet. Howard Shore's beacon-lighting sequence in Return of the King manifests the connection between peoples. The movement is more than a request or a promise or an announcement. (I still cry while listening to that section.) And if you require words, you might listen to "Hope Eyrie"... music for those of us who remember when rockets could lift us into space.

We know well what life can tell
If you would not perish, then grow!
And today our fragile flesh and steel
Have laid their hands on a vaster wheel
With all of the stars to know.

But the Eagle has landed
Tell your children when
Time won't drive us down to dust again.


Post a Comment

<< Home