Epic

Mimic the acoustics of a large sound source

“When those horns kick in its so frickin epic. Eargasm every single time”

Definition

Listen to examples below 

The Epic pattern is a set of auditory cues that indicate large sound sources. Humans and animals use a consistent set of acoustic features to predict the size and distance of unseen sound sources. Given that big animals and people are generally stronger and more dangerous, listeners are especially sensitive to cues indicating a large size. The more abruptly artists introduce epic cues into their music, and the more artists intensify the unique features that distinguish them, the more likely audiences are to experience chills.

Mechanism

The Epic pattern works by tricking our auditory system for guessing the size of unseen objects. Humans and animals use an acoustic feature called tonal volume to estimate the size of a sound source. Tonal volume is different from loudness or decibel level; it’s a combination of resonance and pressure at certain lower frequencies. You know it when you hear it – tonal volume is the “space filling” attribute of a sound. 

Technique #1: Entrances of high-tonal volume timbres

Listen to examples below 

The first Epic technique involves certain timbres that naturally produce high tonal volume. In chills-inducing passages, the most reliable ways we see artists pull this off are:

  • Wind instruments with large resonators: where an artist features a prominent, loud entrance of certain brass (French horn, trombone, tuba) or woodwind (pipe organ, bagpipes, didgeridoo) instruments, typically in the middle part of their range and starting on an upbeat so the players can align their attack and tuning on the downbeat to maximize tonal volume
  • Impulse instruments with large resonators: where an artist features a prominent, loud entrance of certain drums with large shells (e.g., concert bass drum, timpani, taiko, hammerblow) or idiophones (e.g., tam-tam, tubular bells, thunder sheet, crash cymbals), either in the form of an acute hit or a sustained rolls that blend together and result in high tonal volume
  • Amplifiers and production tools: where an artist boost the tonal volume of certain electronic instruments by pairing them with an amp (e.g. electric guitar, Hammond organ, pads), or applies EQ and filters to restrict certain frequencies before a key moment in a mix (usually the chorus) and then maximize acoustic energy in key lower frequencies on the moment itself to maximize tonal volume

Don’t interpret this technique as a “hack” that automatically results in chills. Just featuring a loud French horn entrance won’t work by itself. Whether listeners experience frisson depends on the preceding context and technical aspects of the onset of the notes and quality of the tone. Artistry is required in the set-up, follow-up, and execution. Consult the Frisson 101 page for tips on how other artists have used this technique.

Technique #2: High tonal volume via many unison sound sources

Listen to examples below 

The second Epic technique involves many unison instruments or voices sounding in unison (to borrow an anecdote from frisson expert David Huron, this is why orchestras use 30 violins instead of one amplified to 30x loudness). In chills-inducing passages, the most reliable ways we see artists pull this off are:

  • Mass vocals: where an artist features a large choir, audience singing at a live concert, or crowd-sourced online projects featuring hundreds of singers each recorded separately, typically sounding slow passages with several prominent holds that enable the singers to adjust to each other and align into one cohesive sound
  • Unison ensemble: where an artist features a symphony orchestra or expanded brass or percussion sections with doubled or tripled parts playing in unison, typically during slow legato passages or simple, vamped rhythms to facilitate the players blending their sounds and maximizing tonal volume
  • “Wall of sound” production techniques: where an artist features many overlaid takes or layered tracks of a single timbre (e.g., Enya’s producer often layers her voice 30 times in a single track) to mimic the effect of many unison sound sources and achieve high tonal volume

Don’t interpret this technique as a “hack” that automatically results in chills. Just having a large string section play in unison won’t work by itself. Whether listeners experience frisson depends on the preceding context and how the melodic line enables the players to blend their sounds. Artistry is required in the set-up, follow-up, and execution. Consult the Frisson 101 page for tips on how other artists have used this technique.

Technique #3: Textures conducive to high-tonal volume

Listen to examples below 

The third Epic technique involves certain uses of counterpoint and orchestration to boost tonal volume. In chills-inducing passages, the most reliable ways we see artists pull this off are:

  • Build-ups over an ostinato: where an artist uses a repeating, non-functional progression without a clear tonal center as a lattice on which to layer more and more timbres, which can cultivate an immersive form of listening that focuses audiences on the sonority of the expanding texture
  • Unison “motor” rhythms: where an artist uses a fast, propulsive melody with syncopation that stresses downbeats, limited pitch range, and many repeated notes (usually in the leading-toneless minor mode), typically reinforced with parallel voice leading and active accompaniment to cultivate a listener perception of the music as one large, cohesive, well-balanced sonic unit in motion
  • Inflexible bass line against complex counterpoint: where an artist contrasts a slow, severe, repeating bass line against active lead lines sounding expressive inversions and suspensions (typically on strings or voices in minor mode), which can make listeners feel a sense of intense “struggle” within the texture  

Don’t interpret this technique as a “hack” that automatically results in chills. Just having a syncopated brass theme play over string arpeggios won’t work. Whether listeners experience frisson depends on the preceding context and how well the different lines interlock and blend. Artistry is required in the set-up, follow-up, and execution. Consult the Frisson 101 page for tips on how other artists have used this technique.

Technique #4: Large harmonic “distances”

Listen to examples below 

The fourth Epic technique involves sudden shifts between “distant” chromatic harmonies (far apart on the circle of fifths or with few shared notes), which Western artists have consistently chosen to represent large objects and distances. In chills-inducing passages, the most reliable ways we see artists pull this off are:

  • Direct modulation to a distant chord: where an artist features an abrupt chromatic mediant modulation (e.g. I-bIII, I-bVI), “far fifth” transformation (e.g. i-IV), or tritone transpositions (e.g. I-bV), typically embellished with wide voicings, high-tonal volume instruments, and dynamics
  • “Valving” or cycling between distant chords: where an artist repeatedly alternates between two chords that are far apart chromatically (e.g. I-bV-I-bV-I), or cycles through multiple distant chords, typically placed at the beginning of a song or an exposed section to signal that this unusual movement is intentional 
  • Certain upward leaps to major chords in a minor mode: where an artist features a step-wise melody in a minor key that sets up a large, upward leap at the climax of a phrase to a major chord (usually i-VI but also i-V, i-VII), typically embellished with high-tonal volume timbres and sparse arrangements to focus listeners on the melody

Don’t interpret this technique as a “hack” that automatically results in chills. Just featuring a loud chromatic mediant modulation on brass won’t work by itself. Whether listeners experience frisson depends on the preceding context and how the progression is integrated into the flow. Artistry is required in the set-up, follow-up, and execution. Consult the Frisson 101 page for tips on how other artists have used this technique.

Technique #5: Reverb, delay, and echo

Listen to examples below 

The fifth Epic technique involves reverb (our ear associates ambient reverberations with big sounds because sounds from distant sources have to be loud to reach us and tend to hit many reflective surfaces as they travel). In chills-inducing passages, the most reliable ways we see artists pull this off are:

  • Reverb added to impulse sound sources: where an artist features a prominent plucked guitar note, drum hit, or piano chord mid-phrase but adds heavy reverb after the onset of the note, which is especially jarring because these timbres tend to decay immediately without the added reverb effects
  • Sequences featuring naturally reverberant timbres: where an artist features gongs, crotales, piano or tubular chimes with pedal down, humming choir, or pads that achieve a similar effect, typically placed at the start of a song or section and paired with short rhythmic values to create an overall “wash” of sound
  • Sustained delay and echo effects: where an artist suddenly applies an echo effect to a key note in lead vocals, or has a second player repeatedly echo an instrumental entrance on a half-beat or full-beat delay, typically during a prominent climax, resolution, or transition moment to draw listener attention to the effect

Don’t interpret this technique as a “hack” that automatically results in chills. Just plucking a guitar with heavy reverb won’t work by itself. Whether listeners experience frisson depends on the preceding context and technical aspects of the rate, size, and decay of the reverberations. Artistry is required in the set-up, follow-up, and execution. Consult the Frisson 101 page for tips on how other artists have used this technique.

Examples of Technique 1: High Tonal-Volume Timbres

Genre

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

Song

Contact
Big Bird
First Breath After Coma
Like A Cowboy
rockstar (feat. 21 Savage)
Loyal
Symphony No. 2 – Mit Aufschwung
Test Drive (How to Train Your Dragon)
Defying Gravity (Wicked)
2015 Hornline Warmup

Artist

Daft Punk
AJJ
Explosions In The Sky
Randy Houser
Post Malone
ODESZA
Mahler
John Powell
Stephen Schwartz
Bluecoats Drump & Bugle Corps

Frisson Moment Reported By Listeners

0:56
3:12
8:22
0:47
3:11
0:47
3:26
2:01
4:32
1:07

Examples of Technique 2 - Many Unison Sound Sources

Genre

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

Song

We’ll Meet Again
Better Man – Live
The City
Amazing Grace
Ultralight Beam
Becoming Insane
Dies Irae – Grande Messe de Morts
August’s Rhapsody (August Rush)
The Music of the Night (Phantom)
Calon Lan

Artist

Vera Lynn
Pearl Jam
The Chariot
Judy Collins
Kanye West
Infected Mushroom
Berlioz
Mark Mancina
Andrew Lloyd Webber
The Black Mountain Male Chorus

Frisson Moment Reported By Listeners

1:37
0:18
3:07
2:43
5:00
5:21
11:19
4:06
4:15
0:47

Examples of Technique 3 - Textures Conducive to High Tonal Volume

Genre

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

Song

Shape of You
Closer to the Edge
Touching The Golden Cloud
Cruise
My World Needs You
Where Are Ü Now
Symphony No. 7 – Mvt. 2
Am I Not Merciful? (Gladiator)
Time (Inception)
The Birth of a Soul

Artist

Ed Sheeran
Thirty Seconds to Mars
Disperse
Florida Georgia Line
Kirk Franklin
Skrillex, Diplo, Justin Bieber
Beethoven
Hans Zimmer
Hans Zimmer
Really Slow Motion

Frisson Moment Reported By Listeners

3:09
3:03
2:22
1:57
5:37
1:08
2:10
5:15
3:04
1:03

Examples of Technique 4 - Large Harmonic "Distances"

Genre

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

Song

Everyday
Run Boy Run
Knights of Cydonia
Rose of Cimarron
Un-Break My Heart
Moonwalker
Die Walkure – Magic Fire Music
The Hours (The Hours)
Dragonborn (Skyrim)
Imperial Attack (Star Wars)

Artist

Carly Comando
Woodkid
Muse
Poco
Toni Braxton
Wilkinson
Wagner
Philip Glass
Jeremy Soule
John Williams

Frisson Moment Reported By Listeners

0:04 (i-VI)
1:15 (i-#III)
0:49 (i-vi)
0:50 (I-bIII)
3:12 (i-iii)
0:03 (I-vi)
13:14 (i-VI)
4:04 (i-VI)
3:13 (I-VI)
4:23 (I-bV)

Examples of Technique 5 - Reverb and Echo

Genre

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

Song

Clocks
Bittersweet Symphony
Tomorrow Never Knows
Springsteen
Dead To Me
Innerbloom
Symphony No. 1 – Mvt. 1
Nightcrawler (Nightcrawler)
Stay (Interstellar)
The Bottom

Artist

Coldplay
The Verve
The Beatles
Eric Church
Kali Uchis
Rufus Du Sol
Theofanidis
James Newton Howard
Hans Zimmer
MICHELLE & Sofia D’Angelo

Frisson Moment Reported By Listeners

0:00
0:11
0:07
1:09
0:49
5:45
1:04
1:15
5:36
2:29

Listens to more examples in the Qbrio Library