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 instrument entrances

The first Epic 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 to create an even bigger sound as a section. Loud entrances featuring these instruments often induce frisson in listeners.

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

  • Certain brass instruments: loud entrances of French horns, bass trombones, or contrabass tubas featuring an initial leap by a fourth or a fifth, which plays to the strengths of the instruments and enables the musicians to align their attack and tuning so as to maximize tonal volume
  • Certain pipe instruments: sustained drones on pipe organs, bagpipes, or didgeridoos in low register that effectively concentrate acoustic energy in the bass frequencies that result in high tonal volume (or pads and samples of events like rocket engine blasts that replicate the acoustics of these instruments)
  • Certain percussion instruments: either acute hits on concert bass drums, low-pitch chimes, or hammer blow instruments that naturally produce high tonal volume, or sustained rolls on timpani, tam tam, or thundersheets that result in streams of sounds that blend together well to produce high 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. 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 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 technique involves many of the same instrument sounding loudly in unison. When many sound sources play simultaneously, they can blend together and produce very high-tonal volume sounds. To borrow an anecdote from frisson expert David Huron, this is why orchestras use 30 violins instead of one violinist amplified to 30x loudness. The more sound sources there are, the more likely it is that frisson occurs.

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

  • Mass vocals: classical choirs, audience singing at live concerts, and crowd-sourced projects featuring 1,000+ singers online, typically during slow passages with minimal melodic movement and several long, prominent holds that enable the singers to adjust to each other and align into one cohesive sound
  • Unison orchestral sections: strings, brass, winds, and percussion sections sounding in unison either individually or as a full ensemble, typically during passages of long, legato notes and simple, repetitive rhythms to facilitate the players blending their sounds effectively to maximize tonal volume
  • “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) to mimic the effect of many unison sound sources and produce high tonal volume

Don’t interpret this technique as a “hack” that automatically results in chills. Just having a string section play in unison won’t work. 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 the Epic pattern.

Anecdote: For centuries, composers have gone to great lengths to maximize tonal volume. Berlioz’s 1837 Grande Messe des Morts called for 8 pairs of timpani to play simultaneously. A more modern example is Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack for the 2013 film Man of Steel, which featured 12 drumsets playing simultaneously.

Technique #3: High tonal volume via dense musical texture

The third Epic technique involves certain uses of counterpoint and orchestration to boost tonal volume. When artists feature polyphonic arrangements that combine fast tempos, busy interlocking rhythms, and broad orchestration, they can sometimes all blend together into one large, overwhelming sound. The more depth and intensity in the texture, the more likely frisson is to occur.

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

  • “Awe” textures: abrupt transitions to passages featuring a transcendent lead line with high-tonal volume instruments in parallel motion, a fast “busy” supporting line with many sound sources (usually strings), and rigid phrasing and simple harmonies that enable the sounds to interlock and produce high tonal volume
  • “Gravitas” textures: minor mode progressions that start with a slow, repetitive, inflexible baseline and gradually layer on contrasting lines (usually voices or strings) with expressive inversions and suspensions that increase complexity, intensity, and loudness and produce high tonal volume
  • Embellishment of both techniques above with production tools: EQ and high-pass filters that restrict certain frequencies in the preceding passage, which are then abruptly (and dramatically) switched off on the climax or transition moment to enhance the effect

Don’t interpret this technique as a “hack” that automatically results in chills. Just having a brass theme play over string arpeggios won’t work. Whether listeners experience frisson depends on the preceding context and technical aspects of the attack and frequency content of the bass. 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: Many studies have identified soloist-to-ensemble transitions as a reliable frisson devices (e.g. the choruses in Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball” or the orchestra entrance in Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto). The key is contrast between a low-tonal volume solo instrument and full orchestra, choir, or pop arrangement.e

Technique #4: Reverb, delay, and echo

The fourth Epic technique involves certain sounds with pronounced reverb. Sounds from distant sources generally hit many reflective surfaces as they travel toward us and have to be quite loud to reach us. For this reason, our ear associates ambient reverberations with large sound sources. When musicians suddenly introduce reverb into a song, this can often trick our brain into thinking there is a large object producing them. 

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

  • Reverb added to exposed notes on impulse sound sources: long delays added to single, long, exposed notes with minimal accompaniment, on instruments like guitars, drums, and piano that tend to decay immediately with added reverberations (making the added echo and delay effects especially jarring)
  • Prolonged sequences featuring high-reverb instruments: especially tubular bells, humming choir, gongs, piano with pedal down, etc., typically with shortened rhythmic values and repetitive phrasing to create an overall “wash” of sound and focus listeners on the texture and ambience rather than melodic movement
  • Staggered delays: typically applied to vocals and combined with reverb to smooth the sound, but also achieved on brass and other instruments by having a second player repeatedly echo an entrance on a half-beat or full-beat delay (with the repetition helping to reinforce to listeners that the echo effect is intentional)

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

Anecdote: Echo was key to Phil Spector’s famous “wall of sound” style in the 1960s. Spector only recorded in certain studios in New York that had exceptional echo chambers to add texture to his mixes. Spector explicitly called this style a “Wagnerian approach to rock & roll; little symphonies for the kids.”

Technique #5: Large harmonic “distances”

The fifth Epic technique involves sudden shifts between “distant” chords (i.e. chromatic harmonies). In Western music, artists have consistently chosen to represent large distance and size with movement between chords that are far apart (chromatically and on the circle of fifths). Often informally referred to as “space” or “god” chords, these chromatic harmonies can often move Western listeners to chills.

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

  • Direct modulations to “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), usually featuring wide voicings and embellished with dynamics and high-tonal volume instruments like brass, organ, or full orchestra
  • “Valving” between or repeated progressions across distant chords: alternating movement between two chords that are far apart chromatically, or repeated sequences of 3-4 distant chords, placed at the beginning of a song to signal to listeners that this unusual movement is intentional and important
  • Rhythmic emphasis on downbeats: epic chords are typically placed on the downbeat and emphasized  with pickup notes on the upbeat, syncopated rhythms that “weaken” the other beats, and simple, repeated “motor” rhythms that provide a clear division of the pulse around which to accent the harmonic change

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. 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 the Epic pattern.

Anecdote: Music theorist Richard Cohn documents the evolution of associations between certain chord changes and “epicness” in his famous book Audacious Euphony. Cohn traces the origins to 19th century European romantic composers like Wagner and Mahler, both of which were prominent in our dataset.

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
My Body Is A Cage
Finally Free
xx
rockstar (feat. 21 Savage)
Loyal
Dies Irae – Grande Messe de Morts
Storm is Coming (Mad Max: Fury Road)
Stay (Interstellar)
2015 Hornline Warmup

Artist

Daft Punk
Arcade Fire
Dream Theater
xxx
Post Malone
ODESZA
Berlioz
Junkie XL
Hans Zimmer
Bluecoats Drump & Bugle Corps

Frisson Moment Flagged By Listeners

0:56
2:10
4:00
1:03
3:11
0:47
11:19
2:41
5:35
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
Closer to the Edge
The City
Amazing Grace
Ultralight Beam
Kingdom
Symphony No. 7 – Mvt. 2
August’s Rhapsody (August Rush)
Music of the Night (Phantom)
Calon Lan

Artist

Vera Lynn
Thirty Seconds to Mars
The Chariot
Judy Collins
Kanye West
Devin Townsend Project
Beethoven
Mark Mancina
Andrew Lloyd Webber
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 3 - 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
Dead To Me
Innerbloom
Symphony No. 1 – Mvt. 1
Nightcrawler
Top Gun Anthem
The Bottom

Artist

Coldplay
The Verve
The Beatles
Disperse
Kali Uchis
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
0:50
5:45
1:04
1:15
3:23
2:29

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
Big Bird
First Breath After Coma
Like A Cowboy
Die This Way
How Deep Is Your Love
The Birth of a Soul
Test Drive (How To Train Your Dragon)
Defying Gravity (Wicked)
My World Needs You

Artist

Ed Sheeran
AJJ
Explosions In the Sky
Randy Houser
Hopsin
Calvin Harris
Really Slow Motion
John Powell
Kristin Chenoweth & Idina Menzel
Kirk Franklin

Listener Frisson Moment

3:09
3:11
8:22
0:48
3:41
1:02
1:03
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
Eleventh Earl of Mar
Everyday
xxx
Moonwalker
Symphony No. 8 – Mvt. 4
Main Title (The Matrix)
Dragonborn (Skyrim)
The Hours

Artist

Woodkid
Max Richter
Genesis
Carly Comando
xxx
Wilkinson
Bruckner
Don Davis
Jeremy Soule
Philip Glass

Listener Frisson Moment

1:15
16:59
7:15
0:13
xxx
0:00
14:04
0:06-0:16
3:13
4:04

Listens to thousands more examples in our Library