Aggression

Mimic the acoustics of a threatening sound source


“That growling guitar entrance is like a punch in the face. Makes the hair on my arms stand up.”    -Listener comment

The Aggression pattern is a set of auditory cues that are unique to threatening stimuli: the vocalizations humans (and animals) emit when we want to sound hostile, and the sounds produced by dangerous natural disasters. Menacing sounds have consistent, distinct acoustics (see the five techniques below) that intimidate and frighten listenersThe more abruptly you introduce the Aggression Pattern into your music, and the more you intensify the aural properties that distinguish it, the more likely audiences are to experience chills. 

The Aggression Pattern can trigger our fight-or-flight response by matching a danger schema, or auditory stereotype, in our memory. 

We use auditory schemas to help remember and efficiently respond to sounds that have previously threatened our survival. When we hear an auditory cue that matches a stored schema (e.g., growling –> danger), our brain automatically puts the cue on a fast track relative to other sensory information. The amygdala prompts the release of chemicals in our brain (dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine) and body (adrenalin and cortisol) that signal something important is happening. This quickly focuses our attention and prompts us to search our environment for the cause of our sudden, heightened arousal. Recent research confirms that we can reliably distinguish aggression cues from similar auditory cues denoting fear or other forms of increased arousal.

A common auditory feature across aggression cues is low, rough pitch, often involving the vocal fry register in human vocalizations. Given that body size is generally associated with the lowest possible frequency an individual can produce, humans and animals lower the pitch of their voice when they want to appear intimidating (i.e. the over-the-top Batman voice from the Dark Knight trilogy). Among mammals, lower pitched notes also tend to become “noisy” and distorted due to the vibrations of the vocal fold membrane surrounding the glottis.

Our data indicates that low-pitched sounds (generally <100Hz) with unusual frequency features called non-linearities – chaotic broadband energy, sidebands, and warbles that appear between or outside the normal harmonics of a voice or instrument – can often induce frisson in listeners. This method is effective because non-linearities are difficult to fake. It takes significant energy to strain the lower range of a sound system and produce non-linearities. For this reason, our brain generally trusts them as honest signals of hostile intent when paired with low pitch.

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

  • Heavy distortion, especially of electric guitars, synths, and lead vocals
  • Yelling, shouting, and grunting in lead vocals
  • Nature samples like lion roars 

Don’t interpret this to mean that any distorted electric guitar note will work. Our data suggests that when using this technique, it helps to:

  • Placement: Introduce these sounds at moments when listeners are distracted by the melodic movement (e.g. end of a cadence) 
  • Set-up: Precede these sounds with repetitive, lower-energy sections that enhance the contrast with the aggressive entrance
  • Follow-up: Leave a beat or two of rest after the entrance to allow space for a positive listener appraisal response .

Our data indicates that low-pitched sounds (generally <100Hz) with acoustic roughness – very rapid loudness fluctuations that we perceive as beating or rattling – can often induce frisson in listeners. These guttural, gritty sounds are commonly referred to as growling. Growl-like sounds are effective for frisson because their modulation rates are extremely unusual (e.g. 30-150 Hz v. 4 Hz for normal spoken voice). Given how rarely we encounter low-pitched acoustic roughness in nature, it is a reliable and attention-grabbing indicator of hostility.

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

  • Growl-like instrumental sounds, especially low brass (e.g. trombones, baritone sax) and string instruments (e.g., distorted guitar, cellos) 
  • Recordings of growling animals
  • Varying the pace and width of amplitude modulation, especially in sustained vocal notes

Don’t interpret this to mean that any growl-like sound will give listeners chills. Our data suggests that when using this technique, it helps to:

  • Placement: Use leaps at the beginning of song or new section to make them especially conspicuous
  • Set-up: Pair leaps with reduced orchestration (often solo vocals), monophonic texture, and slower tempos to focus listeners on the melodic movement and prevent non-melodic distractions
  • Follow-up: Sustain growl-like sounds to create space for a positive listener appraisal response

Our data indicates that when you create non-linear glissandos that descend from low to very low pitch, this can often induce frisson in listeners. Researchers have confirmed that low pitch and falling pitch contours are consistent features of aggression vocalizations. Descending glissandos take advantage of this association, but further subvert our expectations by making us think – as the pitch descends – that we are hearing an even larger, and therefore more dangerous, sound source than we thought when we heard the start of the glissando.

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

  • Long, slow glides over several seconds or short, accelerating glides that last less than a second
  • Synths, electric guitars, and double basses 
  • Subtly accelerate or crescendo during the glissando given that our ears are less perceptive of pitch changes at low frequencies

Don’t interpret this to mean that any low-pitch glissando will give listeners chills. Our data suggests that when using this technique, it helps to:

  • Placement: Use longer glides during exposed moments (i.e. when backing instrumental drop out or melody vamps) and shorter glides during transitions between sections or phrases
  • Set-up: Immediately precede these glissandos with a few seconds of flat melodic material (e.g., ambient background, vamp, held chord) to make them as jarring as possible
  • Follow-up: Follow descending glissandos with an immediate re-start of the melodic flow if a pop or rock song, or repeat the glissandos and follow them each time with flat melodic material if a soundtrack cue, to create space for a positive listener appraisal response

Our data indicates that when you create infrasound – vibrations below the range of human hearing (16-19Hz) that we experience as a subtle, disorienting rumbling sensation – this can often induce frisson in listeners. You typically “feel” these sounds more than you hear them.  Predators including tigers, lions, and elephants, as well as natural disasters including earthquakes, avalanches, and tsunamis, all produce sound in the infrasonic or lower sub-bass range. Our encounters with these threats makes us associate infrasound with danger. 

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

  • Sounds in the lower sub-bass range frequently manipulated to irregularly wobble and vary in volume and “height”
  • Sub-harmonic singing entrances featuring extended techniques like basso profundo and Tuvaan kargyraa singing)
  • Nature samples like recordings of lion roars or thunder claps

Don’t interpret this to mean that any very low pitch will give listeners chills. Our data suggests that when using this technique, it helps to:

  • Placement: Feature infrasound at the very beginning of a piece, a prominent climax, or a prominent transition point, to make the infrasound as conspicuous as possible
  • Set-up: Precede a passage where you use infrasound with a distraction (e.g. unexpected harmonic move, new timbre entrance, or silent, pregnant pause) to make it as jarring as possible
  • Follow-up: Prolong the infrasound and fade in a melodic or rhythmic line over the top to re-assure listeners it is intentional and create space for a positive listener appraisal response

Our data indicates that when you feature abrupt, large downward shifts in pitch with fast-attack, concentrated acoustic energy (more commonly known as bass drops), this can often induce frisson in listeners. This method is effective for two reasons. First, it takes advantage of our the fact that we associate low fundamental frequencies with large, potentially dangerous sound sources. Second, the most effective drops tend to concentrate energy in the key frequency range that mirrors the resonant cavity of our ear (1-4kHz and especially 3-4kHz), making them especially piercing.

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

  • Bass drops in EDM music featuring electronic instruments and samples
  • Sub-harmonic singing entrances featuring extended techniques like basso profundo and Tuvaan kargyraa singing)
  • Certain orchestral instrument entrances in low register, such as pipe organ, double bass, tuba, contrabassoon, and bass clarinet 

Don’t interpret this to mean that any loud bass drop will give listeners chills. Our data suggests that when using this technique, it helps to:

  • Placement: Immediately precede drops with a distraction – either a divergent riff, rise in frequency, or pause – that throws listeners off balance and makes the drop as jarring as possible
  • Pre-moment: Concentrate acoustic energy at the start the drop note and change the rhythm, tempo, and texture on the drop, to make it as conspicuous as possible
  • Post-moment: Quickly re-start the lead line after the drop to re-assure listeners the frequency shift was intentional and create space for a positive listener appraisal respons

Technique 1 – Low pitch with spectral non-linearities

Genre

Song

Frisson Moment Flagged By Listeners

Link

Pop

Mah’s Joint (feat. Quincy Jones)

Jon Bellion

Low synth at 5:52

Alternative / Indie

xxx

xxx

xxx

Rock / Metal

White Walls

Between The Buried And Me

Vocals at 9:49

Dance / Electronic

Spoiler (Original Mix)

Hyper

Drop at 0:42

Hip-Hop / R&B

Mo Bamba

Sheck Wes

Vocals from 1:40

Country / Folk

xxx

xxx

xxx

Classical

xxx

xxx

xxx

Film Music

We Need Our Army Back (Dunkirk)

Hans Zimmer

Double basses at 3:10

Film Music

Survive (Mad Max: Fury Road)

Junkie XL

Low strings from 0:07

Soundtracks

Sovngarde (The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim)

Jeremy Soule

Vocal shout at 1:39

Other

Creation of Earth

Thomas Bergersen

Roar effect at 0:59

Technique 2 – Low pitch with rapid amplitude modulation

Genre

Song

Frisson Moment Flagged By Listeners

Link

Pop

This Is America

Childish Gambino

Synth at 0:48

Alternative / Indie

Alligator

Of Monsters and Men

Drop at 1:38

Rock / Metal

Fiddler on the Green

Demons & Wizards

Guitar at 3:35

Dance / Electronic

Animals

Martin Garrix

Synth at 1:52

Hip-hop / R&B

Blood On the Leaves

Kanye West

Brass at 1:07

Country / Folk

xxx

xxx

xxx

Classical

We Bow Down Before Your Cross

The Orthodox Singers

Basso profundo at 3:41

Film Music

With Love Comes A Great Waterfall

John Powell

Brass at 1:17

Soundtracks

The Rains of Castomere (Game of Thrones)

The National

Vocals at opening

Other

Legend

Huun-Huur-Tu

Throat singing at opening

Other

Blood bag 1:55

xxx

xxx

Technique 3 – Descending pitch glides in low register

Genre

Song

Frisson Moment Flagged By Listeners

Link

Pop

Blank Space

Taylor Swift

Synth at 0:44

Alternative / Indie

Children of the Sun (feat. Merethe Soltvedt)

Thomas Bergersen

Sub-bass at 3:14

Rock / Metal

Mr. Crowley

Ozzy Osbourne

Guitar at 2:41

Dance / Electronic

The Little Things (Kasbo Remix)

Big Gigantic

Synth at 0:34

Hip-Hop / R&B

xxx

xxx

xxx

Country / Folk

xx

xxx

xxx

Classical

xxx

xxx

xxx

Film Music

The Beast (Sicario)

Jóhann Jóhannsson

Synth at opening

Soundtracks

Speechless (Aladdin)

Naomi Scott

Synth at 2:29

Other

Sins of the Father (Metal Gear Solid)

Donna Burke

Sub-bass at 1:25

Technique 4 – Very low pitch (Sub-bass and faux-infrasound)

Genre

Song

Frisson Moment Flagged By Listeners

Link

Pop

xxx

xxx

xxx

Alternative / Indie

xxx

xxx

xxx

Rock / Metal

xxx

xxx

xxx

Dance / Electronic

Never Be Like You (feat. Kai)

Flume

Sub-bass at 1:09

Hip-Hop / R&B

OKRA

Tyler the Creator

Synth at 1:42

Country / Folk

xxx

xxx

xxx

Classical

Symphony 2 – Mvt. 1

Mahler

Percussion at 15:56

Film Music

Coffee on the Mike (The Green Mile)

Thomas Newman

Sub-bass from 0:40

Soundtrack

Mountains (Interstellar)

Hans Zimmer

Synths from 2:06-2:10

Other

The Beautiful Steppe

Batzorig Vaanchig

Undertones from 1:20

Technique 5 –  Downward frequency shifts with concentrated acoustic energy

Genre

Song

Frisson Moment Flagged By Listeners

Link

Pop

Attention

Charlie Puth

Drop at 0:47

Alternative / Indie

xxx

xxx

xxx

Rock / Metal

xxx

xxx

xxx

Dance / Electronic

Finale 

Madeon (feat. Nicholas Petricca)

Drop at 0:22

Hip-Hop / R&B

HUMBLE.

Kendrick Lamar

Drop at 0:07

Country / Folk

xxx

xxx

xxx

Classical

String Quartet No. 8 – Mvt. 2

Shostakovich (Emerson String Quartet)

Drop at 0:56

Film Music

Star Wars: The Force Awakens Trailer

Star Wars

Drop at 0:32

Soundtracks

Wait For It (Hamilton)

Leslie Odom Jr. & Original Cast

Drop at 1:31

Other

Chop Suey!

System Of A Down

Drop at 2:35

Other

I Like It

Cardi B

Drop at 0:07

Other

Heavyweight

Infected Mushroom

Guitar from 4:46

Classical

Symphony No. 6 – Mvt. 1

Tchaikovsky

Brass at 13:13

Classical

xxx

xxx

xxx

Hip-Hop / R&B

Pray For Me

Eminem

xxx

Hip-Hop / R&B

Till I Collapse

Eminem

xxx

Classical

Mars, The Bringer of War

Holst

Low brass from 4:24

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