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 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 a song, and the more artists intensify the unique acoustic 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 technique for creating an Epic pattern is to use certain instruments that reliably produce high tonal volume. Composer and producers have long had 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 reliably 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, contrabass tuba, typically entering loudly 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 these methods as “hacks” that automatically give listeners chills. Our data suggests that when using them, it helps to:

  • Set-up
  • Follow-up
  • Context

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. Many of these clips involved a simple chord progression or familiar melody from pop music, but sounded by dozens of unison brass players. At the heart of many 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 technique for creating an Epic pattern is to sound many low tonal-volume instruments loudly in unison. Certain instruments blend together well when they sound in unison. This can produce exponentially higher aggregate tonal volume than 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 reliably 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 overlayed takes or layered tracks of a single voice or instrument (e.g., Enya’s producer layers her voice 30 times in a single track)
Don’t interpret these methods as “hacks” that automatically give listeners chills. Our data suggests that when using them, it helps to:

  • Set-up
  • Follow-up
  • Context

Anecdote:

Technique #3: Reverb and delay

The third technique for creating an Epic pattern is to use pronounced reverb. Our ears associate ambient reverberations and echo effects with distant sound sources and large spaces given that faraway sounds hit more reflective surfaces as they travel toward us than close sounds. 

In chills-inducing passages, the most reliably 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
  • Staggered delays applied to vocals: often combined with reverb to smooth the transience   
  • High-reverb instruments: especially tubular bells, humming choir, gongs, and rich synth pads
Don’t interpret these methods as “hacks” that automatically give listeners chills. Our data suggests that when using them, it helps to:

  • Set-up
  • Follow-up
  • Context

Anecdote:

This technique was the centerpiece of Phil Spector’s famous “wall of sound” in the 1960s that featured recordings in studios with exceptional echo chambers. Spector even described this sound as “a Wagnerian approach to rock & roll”. 

Technique #4: Suddenly filling out the frequency range

The fourth technique for creating an Epic pattern is to have a large ensemble playing loud, interlocking, fast rhythms. This technique combines the first three Epic techniques, often implementing each technique in each line or section of the music, to create a single, large, enveloping sound sound.  

In chills-inducing passages, the most reliably 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
  • Audience applause and crowd swells  
  • Production techniques 
Don’t interpret these methods as “hacks” that automatically give listeners chills. Our data suggests that when using them, it helps to:

  • Set-up
  • Follow-up
  • Context

Anecdote:

Technique #5: Large harmonic “distances”

The fifth technique for creating an Epic pattern is to feature shifts between chords that are “far apart” chromatically and on the circle of fifths. Unlike the four previous techniques that mimic sounds in nature, this technique takes advantage of learned associations in Western music that large harmonic shifts often represent themes of distance, size and space (which is why they are sometimes referred to as “god chords” or “space chords”).

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

  • Direct modulations between certain distant keys: 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 keys: repeated undulations back and forth between two distant chords  
  • Extended sequences across distant keys: often featuring repeated jumps through hexatonic or octatonic scales
Don’t interpret these methods as “hacks” that automatically give listeners chills. Our data suggests that when using them, it helps to:

  • Set-up
  • Follow-up
  • Context

Anecdote: Scott Murphy tritones

Examples of Technique 1: High Tonal-Volume Instruments

Genre

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

Song

Contact
My Body Is a Cage
Finally Free
Stay (Interstellar)
B.O.B.
Loyal
Dies Irae – Grande Messe de Morts
Anything Is Possible (The Matrix)
The Music of the Night
2015 Hornline Warmup

Artist

Daft Punk
Arcade Fire
Dream Theater
Hans Zimmer
OutKast
ODESZA
Berlioz
Don Davis
Andrew Lloyd Webber
Bluecoats Drump & Bugle Corps

Listener Frisson Moment

0:56
2:09
4:00
5:35
0:06
0:47
11:19
2:46-2:56
4:15
1:07

Examples of Technique 2 - Reverb and Echo

Genre

Pop
Alternative
Rock
Rock
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 Cave
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
Rock
EDM
Classical
Film
Soundtracks
Other

Song

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

Artist

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

Listener Frisson Moment

1:11
0:13
6:34
1:52
16:59
0:23
14:07
4:22-4:56
3:12
4:04

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