tl;dr
EPIC PATTERN:

when an artist suddenly features one of five auditory cues that indicate large size, resulting in listener chills when combined effectively with a Structural pattern

“When those horns kick in it’s so frickin epic. Eargasm every single time.”

Technique 1:

Tonal volume

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Technique 2:

Ambient reverb

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Technique 3:

Harmonic “distance”

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Technique 4:

Texture contrast

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Technique 5:

Immersive repetition

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How It Works

When artists use the Epic pattern they “trick” our auditory system for estimating the size of unseen sound sources. Humans and animals use a consistent set of acoustic features to predict the size and distance of unknown sound sources. Given that big animals and people are generally stronger and therefore more dangerous, we are especially sensitive to cues indicating a large size. When musicians feature cues indicating large size, they take advantage of this sensitivity in order to trigger a fear response that, when quickly integrated back into the musical flow, can move listeners to the point of chills.

Aggression and Epic cues share many technical features and tend to appear together.

Top Acoustic Pattern pairing:

Top Structural Pattern pairing:

Genre that most uses pattern:

Aggression
Surprise
Film/Games

Technique 1: Tonal Volume

Tonal volume is the main size cue used by humans and animals. It’s a combination of pressure and resonance at certain lower frequencies that we experience as the “space filling” quality of a sound. You know it when you hear it. When artists feature sudden high tonal volume, or an abrupt large increase in tonal volume, this can often trigger epic associations. Some of the ways artist implement this technique are:

— Instruments with large resonators (e.g. French horn, pipe organ, concert bass drum) 

— Many unison sound sources (e.g. full orchestra playing in unison, audience singing at live concert)

— Amplifiers and production (e.g. “wall of sound” with many overlaid takes or layered tracks)

Genre

Pop/R&B
Hip Hop/Rap
Country/Folk
Alternative/Indie
Rock/Metal
Dance/Electronic
Film/Games
Classical/World

Song

Defying Gravity
Ultralight Beam
Like A Cowboy
Big Bird
The City
Loyal
Test Drive
Symphony No. 2 – Mvt. 5 (g)

Artist

Idina Menzel
Kanye West
Randy Houser
AJJ
The Chariot
ODESZA
John Powell
Mahler

Frisson Reported by Listeners

4:32
5:00
0:48
3:12
3:07
0:47
2:01
3:27

Technique 2: Ambient reverberation

Prominent reverb is another reliable size cue used by humans and animals. Our ear associates “big” sounds with reverb because reverb results from sound waves traveling large distances (and hitting reflective surfaces along the way). If a distant sound is strong enough to reach us so that we can hear it, it likely came from a large source. Some of the ways artist implement this technique are:

— Naturally reverberant timbres (e.g. gong, humming choir, piano with pedal down)

— Artificial reverb added to impulse sources (e.g. drum hit, plucked guitar, solo vocals)

— Delay and echo effects

Genre

Pop/R&B
Hip Hop/Rap
Country/Folk
Alternative/Indie
Rock/Metal
Dance/Electronic
Film/Games
Classical/World

Song

Attention
rockstar (feat. 21 Savage)
Follow Your Arrow
First Breath After Coma
Better Man (live)
Genesis
August’s Rhapsody
Grande Messe de Morts

Artist

Charlie Puth
Post Malone
Kacy Musgraves
Explosions in the Sky
Pearl Jam
Grimes
Mark Mancina
Berlioz

Frisson Reported by Listeners

1:33
3:11
2:13
8:22
0:18
1:03
4:06
9:51

Technique 3: Harmonic “distance”

“Distance” between chords (on the circle of fifths) is an indirect size cue. Western artists have frequently chosen to use movement between “far apart” chords (i.e. with few or no shared notes) to represent large objects or distances, especially in film and classical music. As a result, large harmonic shifts can often trigger epic associations for Western listeners. Some of the ways artist implement this technique are:

— Direct, chromatic modulations (e.g., I-bIII, i-IV, I-bVI, I-bV )

— Certain upward leaps to major chords in minor modes (e.g., i-VI, i-V, i-VII)

— “Valving” between unrelated chords (e.g., I-bV-I-bV)

Genre

Pop/R&B
Hip Hop/Rap
Country/Folk
Alternative/Indie
Rock/Metal
Dance/Electronic
Film/Games
Classical/World

Song

Un-break My Heart
Thong Song
Rose of Cimarron
Run Boy Run
Knights of Cydonia
Moonwalker
Dragonborn (Skyrim)
Die Walkure: Magic Fire Music

Artist

Toni Braxton
Sisqo
Poco
Woodkid
Muse
Wilkinson
Jeremy Soule
Wagner

Frisson Reported by Listeners

3:09 (i-iii)
2:46 (i-iv)
0:49 (I-bIII)
1:15 (i-#III)
0:49 (i-vi)
0:00 (i-vi)
3:13 (I-VI)
13:15 (i-VI)

Technique 4: Texture contrast

High-contrast textures can communicate “intensity”, which is an indirect size cue. Intense sounds (e.g. very loud, fast, or uneven sounds) require significant energy to produce and therefore tend to indicate large sound sources. By featuring “intense” textures with radical differences across the parts, artists can sometimes trigger epic associations. Some of the ways artist implement this technique to create chills-inducing moments include:

— Static vs. active contrast (e.g., repeating, “inflexible” bass line against a complex, “active” lead line)

— Fast vs. slow contrast (e.g. one line with short rhythmic values against another line with long notes)

— Ending vs. beginning contrast (e.g., elisions where a new line begins as another line ends)

Genre

Pop/R&B
Hip Hop/Rap
Country/Folk
Alternative/Indie
Rock/Metal
Dance/Electronic
Film/Games
Classical/World

Song

ME!
Dreams & Nightmares
Cruise
Sugar, We’re Going Down
Touchng the Golden Cloud
Becoming Insane
Am I Not Merciful? (Gladiator)
1812 Overture

Artist

Taylor Swift
Meek Mill
Florida Georgia line
Fall Out Boy
Disperse
Infected Mushroom
Hans Zimmer
Tchaikovsky

Frisson Reported by Listeners

From 2:41
From 2:00
From 1:57
From 2:50
From 4:34
From 5:21
From 5:14
From 12:41

Technique 5: Immersive repetition

Certain uses of repetition can boost the effectiveness of other size cues. Artists sometimes use prolonged repetition to encourage listeners to focus less on tension-release movements and more on the size and quality of the sounds. When done effectively, audiences shift to an immersive form of listening that can contribute to an “epic” feel. Some of the ways artist implement this technique to create chills-inducing moments include:

— Ostinatos involving a harmonic progression without a tonal center 

— Unison “motor” rhythms in minor modes (without a leading tone)

— New-age ambient minimalism  

Genre

Pop/R&B
Hip Hop/Rap
Country/Folk
Alternative/Indie
Rock/Metal
Dance/Electronic
Film/Games
Classical/World

Song

All Time Low
The Blacker The Berry
Ocean
Feels Like The End
Killing in the Name
Opus
The Hours (The Hours)
Fratres

Artist

Jon Bellion
Kendrick Lamar
John Butler Trio
Mikky Ekko
Rage Against the Machine
Eric Prydz
Philip Glass
Arvo Pärt

Frisson Reported by Listeners

From 0:49
From 1:37
From 8:33
From 2:56
From 4:34
From 4:53
From 3:37
From 0:00

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