Aggression

Mimic the acoustics of a threatening sound source

“That growl on the bass guitar makes the hair on my arms stand up. Heavy.”

Definition

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 below  


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 rapid amplitude modulation 

Listen to examples below  

The first Aggression technique involves low-pitch sounds with a frequency feature called acoustic “roughness” (rapid fluctuations in loudness, 30-150Hz vs. 4 Hz for normal speech) that we perceive as beating or rattling. In chills-inducing passages, the most reliable ways we see artists pull this off are:

  • Vocals: when a talented artist adds rapid, irregular rasp or distortion to a prominent low-pitched note (or features an extended technique like death growling in metal music), typically on held vowels with an open mouth to enhance the size and rate of amplitude modulation
  • Instruments: when an artist features a low-pitched entrance or swell on certain low brass (e.g. bass trombones), woodwind (e.g. baritone sax), string (e.g. double bass) or electronic (e.g. electric guitar) instruments, whose large resonators or amplifiers can achieve pronounced amplitude modulation
  • Production and samples: when an artist features recordings of high-roughness sounds like car engine revs and animal growls, or when an artist applies staggered filters and continuously changing distortion techniques that vary the rate and width of amplitude modulation on prominent a low-pitched note

Don’t interpret this technique as a “hack” that always results in listener chills. Just featuring a loud double bass entrance won’t automatically “work” by itself. Artistry is required in the set-up, follow-up, and execution

Technique #2: Low pitch with spectral non-linearities

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The second Aggression technique involves “noisy” distortions (sidebands, warbles, or chaotic broadband energy between and outside the normal harmonics of a sound source) that occur when a resonator is strained below its natural range. In chills-inducing passages, the most reliable ways we see artists pull this off are:

  • Vocals: where a talented artist achieves a fry scream (using the vestibular folds to sound a note containing significant, un-pitched white noise in the fry vocal register), or features a vocal ensemble switching from sung notes to unison, punctuated shouting or yelling at a prominent climax
  • Instruments: where an artist loudly sounds a note slightly beyond the bottom of the natural range of certain reed (clarinets, bassoons, and saxophones), brass (trombones and tuba), or string (cello and double bass) instruments, resulting in an unstable sound as the instrument goes in and out of a pitched harmonic tone
  • Production and samples: where an artist introduces certain heavily-distorted electronic sounds (e.g. creating sidebands by changing the modulation index), or features recordings of animal aggression calls that are known to contain non-linearities, including panther shrieks, alligator hissing, lion roars, and bear bellowing

Don’t interpret this technique as a “hack” that always results in listener chills. Just featuring a sample of a lion roar won’t automatically “work” by itself. Artistry is required in the set-up, follow-up, and execution

Technique #3: Resonance in the sub-bass and infrasonic range

Listen to examples below  

The third Aggression technique involves sounds that resonate in the sub-bass (20-60Hz) and upper infrasonic (15-20Hz) parts of the spectrum (we can’t hear sound in the infrasonic range, but experience it as a subtle rumbling sensation). In chills-inducing passages, the most reliable ways we see artists pull this off are:

  • Vocals: when a singer features an extended technique that produces subharmonics, including Tuvaan karygyraa, Sardinian cantu e tenore, classical basso profundo, and other traditions where vocalists make the vestibular folds vibrate at half the frequency of the fundamental produced by the vocal chords
  • Instruments: when an artist features certain brass (tuba and bass trombone), wind (contrabassoon, bass clarinet, baritone sax), or string (double bass with extension) instruments sounding notes in the lowest part of their range, typically via a loud entrance or as a held drone throughout a section
  • Production and samples: where an artist creates sustained, electronic sub-bass effects that irregularly wobble and vary in “height”, or features a recorded sound with infrasound in it (e.g. thunder claps, rocket engines, volcano eruptions, elephant trumpets, lion roars, whale songs)

Don’t interpret this technique as a “hack” that always results in listener chills. Just layering on low-pitched vibrations won’t automatically “work” by itself. Artistry is required in the set-up, follow-up, and execution.

Technique #4: Certain descending glides from low to very low pitch

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The fourth Aggression technique involves certain downward, non-linear glissandos that mimic the sound of a person or animal lowering their voice to make a growl sound. In chills-inducing passages, the most reliable ways we see artists pull this off are:

  • Long, slow glides at exposed points in songs: when an artist features a downward glide in a lower register that lasts 3-5 seconds and is sounded at a high-visibility moment, typically the opening of a song or during an ambient sections when there is no melodic or harmonic movement to distract listeners
  • Fast glides during transitions: when an artist features a quick downward glide in a lower register that lasts 1-2 seconds and accelerates in pitch and volume as the note descends; these glides need to be more dramatic given that our ears ares less perceptive of pitch change at very low or high frequencies (mel scale)

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

Technique #5: Concentrated downward frequency drops

Listen to examples below  

The fifth Aggression technique involves acute downward shifts in pitch that concentrate acoustic energy in the 2.8-3.5 kHz range (matching the resonant cavity of the human ear drum). In chills-inducing passages, the most reliable ways we see artists pull this off are:

  • Pre-drop “distractions”: where an artist sets up an obvious build-up to a drop, but immediately before the climax takes listeners in a temporary different direction (sudden pitch swell, tense pause, start of a new melody), making the drop more unexpected when it finally arrives 
  • Fast-attack timbres: where at the onset of the drop an artist switches to instruments that effectively concentrate acoustic energy, including impulse sound sources that are struck or strummed (percussion, organ, electric guitar, etc.) or similar synthetic pads
  • Increase cohesion with production tools: where an artist uses techniques like placing an EQ before the drop to enhance contrast, switching all the tracks from separate to the same reverb buss/channel to maximize cohesion, or adding pre-delays to keep the onset of the drop at the front of a mix

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

Examples of Technique 1 - 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
Fiddler 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

Frisson Moment Reported by Listeners

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

Examples of Technique 2: 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

Frisson Moment Reported by Listeners

5:51
2:57
7:03
2:58
1:40
0:42
0:59
0:26
1:38
1:52

Examples of Technique 3 - Sub-bass and Infrasound

Genre

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

Song

Work from Home
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)
Digital Love

Artist

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

Frisson Moment Reported by Listeners

2:16
1:09
2:00
3:22
1:42
1:52
1:11
0:40
1:25
4:00

Examples of Technique 4 - 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

Frisson Moment Reported by Listeners

0:45-0:46
3:13-3:16
2:41-2:44
1:45-1:46
0:33-0:34
0:40-0:41
15:50-15:56
3:09-3:12
2:28-2:31
0:00-0:03

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

Frisson Moment Reported by Listeners

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 the Qbrio Library