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 pattern technique involves low-pitch sounds with frequency features called spectral non-linearities. Non-linearities are produced when a sound system (e.g. our voice box, a synthesizer, a cello) is strained beyond its lower or upper range. You know non-linearities when you hear them; these are “noisy”, intense sounds. They have unusual, unstable technical features like sidebands, warbles, subharmonics, and chaotic broadband energy that appear between or outside the normal harmonics of a voice or instrument. 

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

  • Sudden, heavy distortion: typically at a much lower pitch than the preceding passage and as “noisy” as possible, often using electronic instruments (e.g. guitar, synthesizers) 
  • Human and animal threat vocalizations: yelling, shouting, and grunting in lead vocals, or samples of animal roars and growls (especially lions, alligators, and bears) 
  • Phrasing and arrangements that focus listener attention: this technique is often used at the end of a phrase and surrounded by sparse orchestration to ensure audience attention is drawn to the non-linearities

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. 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

Technique #2: Low pitch with Rapid Amplitude Modulation 

The second Aggression pattern technique involves a frequency feature called acoustic “roughness.” Rough sounds have very rapid amplitude modulation rates, or fluctuations in loudness, that we perceive as beating or rattling. When combined with low pitch (generally <100Hz), these guttural, gritty sounds are commonly referred to as growling. Growls have 30-150 Hz modulation rates as opposed to 4 Hz for normal speech. Acoustic roughness often co-occurs with non-linearities (Technique 1 above). 

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

  • Growl-like instruments: sudden, loud, low-pitch entrances by low brass (trombones, baritone sax), string instruments (cellos, double basses), and electronic instruments (guitar, synths)
  • Extended vocal techniques: especially death growls in metal music and Mongolian throat singing
  • Certain production techniques: filters that vary the pace and width of amplitude modulation, typically applied to sustained low-pitch notes during exposed passages

Don’t interpret this technique as a “hack” that automatically results in chills. Just featuring a loud low brass entrance won’t work. 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:

Technique #3: Descending Pitch Glides in Low Register

The third Aggression pattern technique involves downward, non-linear glissandos from low to very low pitch. Researchers have confirmed that low pitch and falling pitch contours are a consistent feature of aggression vocalizations in humans and animals. 

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

  • Very slow or very fast glides: either slow, slowly accelerating glides over several seconds, or short, rapidly accelerating glides that last less than a second
  • Certain instrumentation: use of synths, electric guitars, or double basses that all resonate well in low registers
  • Crescendo during the glissando: subtly crescendo during the glide given that our ears are less perceptive of pitch changes in lower frequencies

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. 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

Technique #4: Sub-bass and infrasound

The fourth Aggression pattern technique involves sounds that resonates in the sub-bass (20-60Hz) or infrasonic (0-20Hz) parts of the spectrum. Given that we can’t actually hear sound in the infrasonic range, we often experience this technique as a subtle, disorienting rumbling sensation. It’s plausible this technique takes advantage of learned associations from our evolutionary ancestors’ encounters with natural disasters that produce infrasound (volcanos, earthquakes, tsunamis, avalanches, thunder).

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

  • Electronic sub-bass effects: manipulated to irregularly wobble and vary in volume and “height” to make them as attention-grabbing as possible 
  • Sub-harmonic singing: sudden entrances by vocalists using extended techniques like basso profundo or Tuvaan kargyraa singing, which produce sub-harmonics that resonate at very low frequencies
  • Nature samples: recordings of thunder claps, rocket engines, or animal calls like elephant trumpets, which are all known to produce infrasound

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. 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

Technique #5: Concentrated Downward Frequency Shifts

The fifth Aggression pattern technique involves sudden downward frequency shifts with concentrated acoustic energy (i.e. bass drops). This technique is most effective when energy is concentrated in the key frequency range that mirrors the resonant cavity of the human ear (1-4kHz and especially 2.8-3.5kHz). Sounds in this range are especially piercing and jarring.

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

  • Pre-drop distractions: a riff in a different direction, a sudden rise in pitch, or tense pause right before the drop, which throws listeners off balance and makes the drop as unexpected as possible
  • Concentrated, fast-attack on the drop: especially EDM production techniques and electronic instruments that concentrate acoustic energy at the start of the note as much as possible
  • Certain orchestral timbres: abrupt entrances in low register on pipe organ, double bass, tuba, contrabassoon, and bass clarinet

Don’t interpret this technique as a “hack” that automatically results in chills. Just changing the baseline and increasing the volume on a drop won’t work. 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:

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)
Fury
Flying Whales
One Number Away
OKRA
Spoiler
Creation of Earth
We Need Our Army Back (Dunkirk)
Sovngarde (Skyrim: The Elder Scrolls)
Legend

Artist

Jon Bellion
Muse
Gojira
Luke Combs
Tyler, the Creator
Hyper
Thomas Bergersen
Hans Zimmer
Jeremy Soule
Huun-Huur-Tu

Listener Frisson Moment

5:51
0:07
7:03
2:58
1:42
0:42
0:59
3:10
1:38
0:00

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
Start Together
Fiddlers on the Green
Wayfaring Stranger
Blood On The Leaves
Magnets (Hopkins Remix)
We Bow Down Before Your Cross
With Love Comes A Great Waterfall
The Rains of Castomere
Survive (Mad Max: Fury Road)

Artist

Childish Gambino
Sleater-Kinney
Demons & Wizards
Tennessee Ernie Ford
Kanye West
Disclosure
The Orthodox Singers
John Powell
The National
Junkie XL

Listener Frisson Moment

0:47
0:27
3:35
2:11
1:07
4:20
3:41
1:17
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)
Aftergold (feat. Tove Lo)
Symphony No. 2 – Mvt. 1
The Beast (Sicario)
Speechless (Aladdin)
Mountains (Interstellar)

Artist

Taylor Swift
Thomas Bergersen
Ozzy Osbourne
Jason Aldean
Big Gigantic
Big Wild
Mahler
Johann Johannsson
Naomi Scott
Hans Zimmer

Listener Frisson Moment

0:44
3:12
2:41
1:45
0:33
2:16
15:54
0:00
2:29
2:06-2:10

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
Passionfruit
Animals
Dies Irae – Grande Messe de Morts
Coffee on the Mile (The Green Mile)
Sins of the Father (Metal Gear Solid)
Home (Dunkirk)

Artist

Daft Punk
Flume
Metallica
Trace Adkins
Drake
Martin Garrix
Berlioz
Thomas Newman
Donna Burke
Hans Zimmer & Benjamin Wallfisch

Listener Frisson Moment

4:00
1:09
2:00
3:22
0:34
1:52
11:19
0:40
1:26
4:03

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
Am I Not Merciful? (Gladiator)
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
Hans Zimmer
Leslie Odom Jr. & Original Cast
Disney

Listener Frisson Moment

0:47
1:37
2:35
1:52
0:07
0:22
0:55
5:14
1:31
0:32

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