Aggression

Mimic the acoustics of a threatening sound source

“That growling guitar entrance makes the hair on my arms stand up.”

Definition

The Aggression pattern is a set of auditory cues that humans and animals use to communicate hostility. Roars, growls, snarls, yells, and shouts all share a set of distinct, rare acoustic features. Natural disasters like volcanos, earthquakes, tsunamis, avalanches, and thunder also produce these spectral features. The more abruptly artists introduce aggression cues into their music, and the more performers intensify the unique features that distinguish them, the more likely we are to experience chills.

Listen to examples 

Mechanism

When musicians use the Aggression pattern, they take advantage of schemas in our memory that link certain sounds with danger. If we hear a cue that matches a stored schema (e.g. growling -> threat), our brain “fast tracks” this information, puts us on alert, and prompts us search our environment. Recent research confirms that our brains use separate schemas for aggression cues and for cues indicating fear and other forms of increased arousal.

Technique #1: Low Pitch with Spectral Non-Linearities

The first Aggression technique involves low-pitch sounds with frequency features called spectral non-linearities. Non-linearities are distortions produced when a resonator is strained beyond its natural range. They include sidebands, warbles, and broadband energy outside the normal harmonics of a sound source. You know non-linearities when you hear them; these are “noisy”, strained sounds that often induce frisson.

In chills-inducing passages, the most reliable ways we see artists pull off this technique are:

  • Distortion from straining a voice or instrument below its natural range: typically fry screams where vocalists use their false vocal chords to create gutteral, unpitched sounds with chaotic broadband energy (e.g. white noise), or musicians sounding reed instruments loudly below their natural range
  • Heavy artificial distortion created with electronic instruments and production techniques: typically low-pitch pads manipulated with various plug-ins to maximize non-linearities, resulting in highly unstable, irregular sounds where the type and amount of distortion varies over time
  • Samples of human and animal threat vocalizations: recordings of humans yelling and shouting or animals roaring (especially panthers, alligators, and bears); typically sounded during exposed transition moments or climaxes when they are least expected and most jarring

Don’t interpret this technique as a “hack” that automatically results in chills. Just throwing a recording of a lion roar into a song won’t work. Whether listeners experience frisson depends on the preceding context and the rate, amount, and character of the non-linearities in the sound. Consult the Frisson 101 page for tips on how other artists have used the Aggression pattern.

Anecdote: One popular moment in our dataset of listener frisson moments that features spectral non-linearities comes in the 2002 Audioslave song “Cochise”. At 2:57, lead singer Chris Cornell incredibly holds a fry scream for over 10 seconds and produces prominent, constantly varying distortion throughout.

Technique #2: Low pitch with Rapid Amplitude Modulation 

The second Aggression pattern technique involves low-pitch sounds with a frequency feature called acoustic “roughness”. Roughness is like a strobe light effect for sound. Rough sounds have unusually high amplitude modulation rates, or fluctuations in loudness (30-150 Hz vs. 4 Hz for normal speech), that we perceive as beating or rattling. These guttural (<100 Hz), gritty sounds are commonly referred to as growling.

In chills-inducing passages, the most reliable ways we see artists pull off this technique are:

  • Certain instruments and samples: loud entrances on low brass (trombones, baritone sax) and lower strings (double basses, electric guitar), whose bigger resonators can achieve more pronounced amplitude modulation, as well as recordings of car engine revs and animals growls (especially dogs, lions, bears)
  • Certain extended vocal techniques: vocals with rasp, death growls, yelling, shouting, and other types of vocals with moderate distortion but that still maintain a pitched sound, typically on held vowels with an open mouth to enhance the amplitude modulation
  • Repeated pulses, swells, and changing application of production techniques across high-roughness notes: all designed to continuously and non-linearly vary the rate and size/width of amplitude modulation in order make the roughness as irregular and attention-grabbing as possible for listeners

Don’t interpret this technique as a “hack” that automatically results in chills. Just featuring a loud low brass entrance won’t work. Whether listeners experience frisson depends on the contrast with the preceding music and on the rate and width of amplitude modulation. 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 Aggression pattern.

Anecdote: Kanye West

Technique #3: Descending Pitch Glides in Low Register

The third Aggression technique involves certain downward, non-linear glissandos. These falling contours from low to very low pitch mimic the sound of a person or animal lowering their voice to make a growl sound. As these glides descend into the lower end of the frequency range, acoustic roughness increases at an accelerating rate. This often moves listeners to frisson.

In chills-inducing passages, the most reliable ways we see artists pull off this technique are:

  • Long, slow glides at exposed points in songs: lasting several seconds and sounded at high-visibility moments including song openings, immediately preceding the end of well-signaled cadence, or during ambient sections when there is no melodic or harmonic movement to distract listeners
  • Fast glides on the downbeat of a new section: lasting less than a second and accelerating in pitch and volume as the note descends; given that our ears ares less perceptive of pitch change at very low or very high frequencies (see the mel scale), these glide need to be more dramatic to achieve the effect in less time
  • High-roughness timbres: electronic pads and guitars and low string instruments like cellos and double basses, all of which can achieve high resonance in the low end of the frequency spectrum and prominent, irregular roughness given production techniques and the size of the resonators

Don’t interpret this technique as a “hack” that automatically results in chills. Just gliding down to the tonic at the end of a cadence won’t work. Whether listeners experience frisson depends on the preceding context and the speed, angle, and pitch of the glide. 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 Aggression pattern.

Anecdote: Many listeners flagged the glissandos in Johann Johannsson’s score to the 2015 film Sicario as frisson-inducing. To signal the threat of the violent drug cartels featured in the film, Johannsson featured repeated, prominent, falling glissandos in the signature track “The Beast”.

Technique #4: Resonance in the sub-bass and infrasonic range

The fourth Aggression technique involves sounds that resonate in the lower sub-bass (20-60Hz) and upper infrasonic (0-20Hz) parts of the spectrum. We can’t hear sound in the infrasonic range, so we often experience these sounds as a subtle rumbling sensation. Given how rare and difficult they are to produce, sounds that resonate in these very low frequencies are jarring and effective for frisson.

In chills-inducing passages, the most reliable ways we see artists pull off this technique are:

  • Vocalists producing sub-harmonics: Tuvaan karygyraa singing, Sardinian cantu e tenore, classical basso profundo, and other traditions where singers constrict their larynx to make the vestibular folds (the “false vocal chords”) vibrate at half the frequency of the fundamental produced by the vocal chords
  • Certain electronic sub-bass effects: that can be sustained at low frequencies longer than any vocal or instrumental sound, and typically manipulated to irregularly wobble and vary in volume and “height” to make them as unstable and attention-grabbing as possible 
  • Samples of sounds in nature resonating in the infrasonic range: recordings of thunder claps, rocket engines, and animal calls like elephant trumpets, lion roars, and whale songs, all of which are all known to produce infrasound; typically layered onto transition moments and climaxes when they are least expected

Don’t interpret this technique as a “hack” that automatically results in chills. Just layering low-pitched vibrations onto a part of a song won’t work. Whether listeners experience frisson depends on the depth and  irregularity of the sound. 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 Aggression pattern.

Anecdote: Tigers roars produce sound that resonates at around 18 Hz in the infrasonic range. Recent research suggests that even though it is inaudible to most prey, the purpose of infrasound is to reverberate into the body of other animals and cause us to to freeze so the tiger can attack. 

Technique #5: Certain concentrated bass drops

The fifth Aggression technique involves certain downward, concentrated frequency shifts (i.e. drops). The resonant cavity of the human ear drum is 1-4kHz and especially 2.8-3.5kHz. Unanticipated low pitch with concentrated resonance in these frequencies is especially piercing and attention-grabbing. The louder and more concentrated the attack of the note, the more likely listeners are to experience frisson.

In chills-inducing passages, the most reliable ways we see artists use this technique are:

  • Fast-attack entrances: concentrated acoustic energy at the onset of the drop, with added reverb to prolong the resonance in key frequencies; often achieved with electric instruments and various production techniques that maximize the sound in the most impactful frequencies
  • Pre-drop distractions: preceding a drop with a busy melodic line, quickly rising pitch, or tense pause, all of which serve to make the sudden leap downward as unanticipated as possible and the contrast in pitch and acoustic energy on the drop as large and as jarring as possible
  • Certain synths and timbres with concentrated resonance in lower frequencies: typically electronic drum pads and other synthetic sounds, but also impulse sources that are struck or strummed and have a naturally fast, concentrated attack (e.g. percussion, pipe organ, electric guitar) 

Don’t interpret this technique as a “hack” that automatically results in chills. Just changing the baseline on a drop won’t work. Whether listeners experience frisson depends on the preceding context and certain aspects of the rate, angle, and size of the shift in pitch and momentum. 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 Aggression pattern.

Anecdote: Powerful bass drops are key in EDM music and one of the most popular EDM moments submitted to our dataset is the drop in DVBBS & Borgeous’s 2013 hit “Tsunami”. Set up by a clever passage that distracts and disorients listeners, many listeners report chills right on the drop at 1:16.

Examples of Technique 1: Low Pitch With Spectral Non-Linearities

Genre

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

Song

Mah’s Joint (feat. Quincy Jones)
Cochise
Flying Whales
One Number Away
Mo Bamba
Spoiler
Creation of Earth
All for Us (Euphoria)
Sovngarde (Skyrim: The Elder Scrolls)
Kingdom (live)

Artist

Jon Bellion
Audioslave
Gojira
Luke Combs
Sheck Wes
Hyper
Thomas Bergersen
Labrinth & Zendaya
Jeremy Soule
Devin Townsend

Listener Frisson Moment

5:51
2:57
7:03
2:58
1:40
0:42
0:59
0:26
1:38
1:51

Examples of Technique 2 - Low Pitch With Rapid Amplitude Modulation

Genre

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

Song

This Is America
Fury
Fiddlers on the Green
Whippoorwills And Freight Trains
Blood On The Leaves
Magnets (Hopkins Remix)
We Bow Down Before Your Cross
Killmonger (Black Panther)
The Rains of Castomere
Survive (Mad Max: Fury Road)

Artist

Childish Gambino
Muse
Demons & Wizards
Trace Adkins
Kanye West
Disclosure
The Orthodox Singers
Ludwig Goransson
The National
Junkie XL

Listener Frisson Moment

0:47
0:06
3:35
3:22
1:07
4:20
3:41
1:21
0:00
0:08

Examples of Technique 3 - Descending Pitch Glides in Low Register

Genre

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

Song

Blank Space
Children of the Sun
Mr. Crowley
She’s Country
The Little Things (Kasbo Remix)
Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites
Symphony No. 2 – Mvt. 1
We Need Our Army Back (Dunkirk)
Speechless (Aladdin)
Sicario – Trailer

Artist

Taylor Swift
Thomas Bergersen
Ozzy Osbourne
Jason Aldean
Big Gigantic
Skrillex
Mahler
Hans Zimmer
Naomi Scott
Jóhann Jóhannsson

Listener Frisson Moment

0:44
3:12
2:41
1:45
0:33
0:40
15:50-15:56
3:10
2:29
0:00

Examples of Technique 4 - Sub-bass and Infrasound

Genre

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

Song

Digital Love
Never Be Like You (feat. Kai)
Fade to Black
Whippoorwills And Freight Trains
OKRA
Animals
Also Sprach Zarathustra – No. 7
Coffee on the Mile (The Green Mile)
Sins of the Father (Metal Gear Solid)
Mountains (Interstellar)

Artist

Daft Punk
Flume
Metallica
Trace Adkins
Tyler, the Creator
Martin Garrix
Richard Strauss
Thomas Newman
Donna Burke
Hans Zimmer

Listener Frisson Moment

4:00
1:09
2:00
3:22
1:42
1:52
1:11
0:40
1:26
2:06-2:12

Examples of Technique 5 - Concentrated Downward Frequency Shifts

Genre

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

Song

Attention
Alligator
Chop Suey!
Old Town Road – Remix
HUMBLE.
Finale (feat. Nicholas Petricca)
String Quartet No. 8 – Mvt. 2
With Love Comes A Great Waterfall
Wait For It (Hamilton)
The Force Awakens – Trailer

Artist

Charlie Puth
Of Monsters and Men
System of a Down
Lil Nas X
Kendrick Lamar
Madeon
Shostakovich
John Powell
Leslie Odom Jr. & Original Cast
Disney

Listener Frisson Moment

0:47
1:37
2:35
1:52
0:07
0:22
0:55
1:17
1:31
0:32

Listens to thousands more examples in our Library