Epic

Mimic the acoustics of a large sound source

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

Definition

The Epic pattern is a set of auditory cues that indicate large objects and spaces. Humans and animals use a distinct, consistent set of acoustic features to predict the size and distance of an unseen sound source. Given that large objects are generally more dangerous than small objects, we are especially sensitive to cues indicating a large object. The more abruptly artists introduce epic cues into their music, and the more artists intensify the unique features that distinguish them, the more likely we are to experience chills.

Listen to examples 

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: High-tonal volume instruments

The first Epic pattern technique involves certain instruments that reliably produce high tonal volume. Composers and producers have long had intuitive, informal rankings of instruments that produce “big” sounds. A key attribute of high-tonal volume instruments is their ability to blend with each other and with other sections to create an even bigger sound.

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

  • Horns: sudden, loud entrances by French horns, mellophones, or Wagner “tubas”, typically sounding across broad intervals like fourths and fifths
  • Organs and low brass: pipe organ, bass trombones, and contrabass tuba entrances, typically with loud dynamics and in the lower end of their range
  • Certain percussion instruments: bass drum, timpani and chimes in low register, “effect” instruments like thunder sheet and hammer blow

Don’t interpret this technique as a “hack” that automatically results in chills. Just inserting a loud French horn 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 Epic pattern.

Anecdote: Marching band hornline warmup clips and “closer” moments from Drum Corps International (DCI) shows were popular submissions to our dataset of listener frisson moments. At the heart of these clips is the mellophone, the marching band equivalent of the French horn (just with an outward facing bell). 

Technique #2: Many unison sound sources

The second Epic pattern technique involves many low-tonal-volume instruments sounding loudly in unison. Certain instruments blend together well when they sound in unison. This can produce exponentially higher aggregate tonal volume than just adding up the tonal volume of each player. To borrow an anecdote from frisson expert David Huron, this is why orchestras use 30 violins instead of one violinist amplified to 30x loudness.

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

  • Unison string instruments: violin, viola, and cello sections, typically sounding loudly in unison directly after a quiet, low-tonal volume, solo section 
  • Large vocal ensembles: classical choirs, crowd singing at live concerts, crowd-sourced projects featuring 1,000+ singers 
  • “Wall of sound” production techniques: many overlaid takes or layered tracks of a single voice or instrument (e.g., Enya’s producer often layers her voice 30 times in a single track)

Don’t interpret this technique as a “hack” that automatically results in chills. Just having a vocalist scream as high as they can 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 Epic pattern.

Anecdote: For centuries, composers have been going to great lengths to create as much tonal volume as possible. One of the most popular classical submissions to our dataset, Berlioz’s 1837 Grande Messe des Morts, called for 8 pairs of timpani (two of which had two players for the climaxes). A more modern example is Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack for the 2013 film Man of Steel, which featured 12 drumsets playing simultaneously to create an epic sound for the Superman character.

Technique #3: Reverb and delay

The third Epic pattern technique involves pronounced reverb. Given that faraway sounds hit more reflective surfaces as they travel toward us than close sounds, our ears associate ambient reverberations and echo effects with distant sound sources and large spaces. 

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

  • Heavy reverb added to impulse sound sources: especially plucked electric guitar, drums, and piano, all of which usually decay immediately without reverb
  • Staggered delays: typically applied to vocals and combined with reverb to smooth the sound, but also achieved on brass by having a second player echo an entrance on a half-beat or full-beat delay
  • High-reverb instruments: especially tubular bells, humming choir, gongs, and rich synth pads

Don’t interpret this technique as a “hack” that automatically results in chills. Just plucking a guitar with heavy reverb 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 Epic pattern.

Anecdote: This technique was one of the centerpieces of Phil Spector’s famous “wall of sound” production style in the 1960s. Spector’s approach involved doubling and tripling each part in an ensemble and recording in certain studios in New York that had exceptional echo chambers. Spector explicitly called this a “Wagnerian” approach to rock & roll. (Wagner of course being the composer that pioneered and wrote some of the most “epic” classical music that exists).

Technique #4: Suddenly filling out the frequency range

The fourth Epic pattern technique involves a large ensemble playing loud, interlocking, fast rhythms. This technique combines the first three Epic techniques, often implementing each technique in a separate part of an arrangement, to create a single, large, enveloping sound sound.  

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

  • High-tonal volume instruments in lead line with many unison low-tonal instruments in supporting line: all playing fast, busy, interlocking rhythms
  • Certain production techniques: mainly EQ and high-pass filters that restrict certain frequencies and are then suddenly switched off on a major climax or transition moments
  • Audience applause and crowd swells: typically during live performances or recordings of live performances 

Don’t interpret this technique as a “hack” that automatically results in chills. Just layering in a sample of a crowd swell by itself 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 Epic pattern.

Anecdote: 

Technique #5: Large harmonic “distances”

The fifth Epic pattern technique involves shifts between chords that are “far apart” chromatically and on the circle of fifths. Unlike the four previous techniques that mimic tonal volume cues from nature, this technique takes advantage of learned associations in Western music. Artists have made a consistent creative choice to represent themes of distance, size and space as large harmonic shifts without pivot chords (which is why they are sometimes referred to as “god chords” or “space chords”). Listeners that grow up with Western music typically learn and absorb this connection.

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

  • Direct modulations between certain distant chords: typically chromatic mediants (e.g. I-bIII, I-bVI), “far fifths” (e.g. i-IV), or tritone transpositions between major triads (e.g. I-bV) 
  • “Valving” between distant chords: repeated undulations back and forth between two distant chords (frequently mediant and major triad relationships)  
  • Extended sequences across distant chords: often featuring repeated jumps through hexatonic or octatonic scales

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. 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 Epic pattern.

Anecdote: Renowned music theorist Ronald Cohn documents the evolution of associations between chromatic transformations in Western music with “epicness” and other physical and emotional themes in his seminal book Audacious Euphony. Cohn traces many of the key innovations to 19th century European composers like Wagner and Mahler, both of which were prominent classical submissions to our dataset of listener frisson moments.

Examples of Technique 1: High Tonal-Volume Instruments

Genre

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

Song

Contact
Big Bird
Finally Free
Birth Of A Soul
rockstar (feat. 21 Savage)
Loyal
Dies Irae – Grande Messe de Morts
Stay (Interstellar)
The Music of the Night
2015 Hornline Warmup

Artist

Daft Punk
AJJ
Dream Theater
Really Slow Motion
Post Malone
ODESZA
Berlioz
Hans Zimmer
Andrew Lloyd Webber
Bluecoats Drump & Bugle Corps

Frisson Moment Flagged By Listeners

0:56
3:12
4:00
1:03
3:11
0:47
11:19
5:35
4:15
1:07

Examples of Technique 2 - Reverb and Echo

Genre

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

Song

Clocks
Bittersweet Symphony
Tomorrow Never Knows
Touching The Golden Cloud
Mo Bamba
Innerbloom
Symphony No. 1 – Mvt. 1
Nightcrawler
Top Gun Anthem
The Bottom

Artist

Coldplay
The Verve
The Beatles
Disperse
Sheck Wes
Rufus Du Sol
Theofanidis
James Newton Howard
Harold Faltermeyer & Steve Stevens
MICHELLE & Sofia D’Angelo

Listener Frisson Moment

0:00
0:11
0:07
2:22
2:17
5:45
1:04
1:15
3:23
2:29

Examples of Technique 3 - Many Unison Sound Sources

Genre

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

Song

We’ll Meet Again
Closer to the Edge
The City
Amazing Grace
Ultralight Beam
Kingdom
Symphony No. 7 – Mvt. 2
Storm is Coming (Mad Max: Fury Road)
August’s Rhapsody (August Rush)
Calon Lan

Artist

Vera Lynn
Thirty Seconds to Mars
The Chariot
Judy Collins
Kanye West
Devin Townsend Project
Beethoven
Junkie XL
Mark Mancina
The Black Mountain Male Chorus

Listener Frisson Moment

1:29
2:48
3:07
2:43
5:00
2:15
2:10
2:41
4:06
0:47

Examples of Technique 4 - Filling Out the Frequency Range

Genre

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

Song

Shape of You
The Birth of a Soul
First Breath After Coma
Like A Cowboy
Die This Way
Opus
Addio fiorito asil (Madama Butterly)
Test Drive (How To Train Your Dragon)
Defying Gravity (Wicked)
My World Needs You

Artist

Ed Sheeran
Mumford & Sons
Explosions In the Sky
Randy Houser
Hopsin
Eric Prydz
Puccini
John Powell
Kristin Chenoweth & Idina Menzel
Kirk Franklin

Listener Frisson Moment

3:09
2:45
8:22
0:48
3:41
3:32
1:39
2:01
4:32
5:37

Examples of Technique 5 - Large Harmonic "Distance"

Genre

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

Song

Run Boy Run
Tuesday
Everyday
Ki
Galveston
Moonwalker
Symphony No. 8 – Mvt. 4
The Lighting of the Beacons
Dragonborn (Skyrim)
The Hours

Artist

Woodkid
Max Richter
Carly Comando
Devin Townsend Project
Glen Campbell
Wilkinson
Bruckner
Howard Shore
Jeremy Soule
Philip Glass

Listener Frisson Moment

1:15
16:59
0:13
6:34
1:52
0:23
14:04
4:56
3:13
4:04

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