Epic

Mimic the acoustics of a large sound source or space

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

The Epic pattern is a set of auditory cues that characterize large sound sources and expansive spaces. Humans and animals use a distinct, consistent acoustics to gauge size and distance (see the five techniques below). The more abruptly you introduce the Epic pattern into your music, and the more you intensify the properties that distinguish it, the more likely audiences are to experience chills. 

Note: the five techniques described below are not mutually exclusive and frequently appear in pairs.

The Epic pattern can trigger a fight-or-flight response by tricking our auditory system for judging the size of objects and spaces.

Human and animals use a property of sound called tonal volume to estimate the size of unknown sound sources. Tonal volume is distinct from loudness. It is a combination of frequency, resonance, and pressure that concentrates acoustic energy in certain lower frequencies (see here for more technical detail). You know it when you hear it; tonal volume is the “space-filling” attribute of a sound. The higher the tonal volume of a sound, the larger – and therefore potentially more dangerous – the source that produces it.

Tonal volume is a relatively under-researched acoustic variable, but this is rapidly changing. Conductors and theorists have previously formalized different rankings of how “big” the sounds are produced by different instruments. Researchers are now testing this in controlled settings. Recent findings suggest that concentrated, low frequency acoustic energy and an instrument’s ability to “blend” with other sound sources are key contributors to tonal volume. Researchers are still teasing out how various combinations of instruments blend and how the critical acoustic energy bands come out in different registers and are affected by mutes/mouthpieces/etc.

Our listener data indicates that sudden, loud entrances by certain high-tonal volume instruments often induce frisson. Researchers have confirmed that horns, in particular, are one of the the highest tonal volume-producing instruments. These timbres are effective because they concentrate acoustic energy at certain low frequency levels and blend well with each other and with other sections, further increasing the “size” of their sound. 

In chills-inducing passages, some of the most reliable ways we see composers and performers using this technique include:

  • Horns, especially French horns, mellophones, and Wagner “tuba” 
  • Pipe organ and low brass, especially bass trombones and contrabass tuba, all in lower registers
  • Certain percussion instruments, namely bass drum, timpani, chimes, and”effect” instruments like thunder sheet and hammer blow 

Horn entrances aren’t a “hack” that automatically gives listeners chills. Our data suggests that when using this technique, it helps to:

  • Placement: Place horn entrances at the end of cadences or climax of phrases to make them as conspicuous as possible
  • Context: Have horn entrances introduce new melodic material, sounded as a unison section playing broad, open intervals like fourths and fifths
  • Follow-Up: Hold or repeat the main notes of the entrance to re-assure listeners and create space for a positive listener appraisal response
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).

Our listener data indicates that sounds with pronounced, ambient reverberations can often induce frisson in listeners. Your ear associates reverb and echo effects with distance, given that far away sounds tend to encounter a greater number of reflective surfaces as they travel toward you than nearby sounds. It’s likely that reverberations are effective for frisson because our brain assumes a sound source is large, and therefore potentially dangerous, if we can hear it from a great distance away. 

In chills-inducing passages, some of the most reliable ways we see composers and performers using this technique include:

  • Added reverb to strings, synth pads, and electric guitar
  • Staggered delays applied to vocals, often combined with reverb to smooth the transience
  • Highly reverberant instruments like tubular bells, wind chimes, crotales, or humming choir

Reverb isn’t a “hack” that automatically give listeners chills. Our data suggests that when using this technique, it helps to:

  • Placement:
  • Context: these passages tend to involve a repeated or sustained motif, which perhaps leads listeners to focus more on the timbres than the melody
  • Follow-Up:

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”. 

Our listener data indicates that when you feature many low-tonal volume instruments playing loudly in unison in the same register, this can often induce frisson in listeners. The key to this method is that similar instruments in the same register can effectively blend together when they sound in unison. And more blended sound sources = more tonal volume. To borrow an anecdote from frisson expert David Huron, this is why orchestras use 30 violins instead of one violinist amplified to 30x loudness, even though the latter would be cheaper. This makes loud passages with many similar instruments sounding in unison highly effective for frisson.

In chills-inducing passages, some of the most reliable ways we see composers and performers using this technique include:

  • Unison strings often directly following a solo section featuring a low-tonal volume instrument like violin or oboe
  • Unison chorus, popular listener submissions included crowd singing at rock concerts and crowd-sourced choral performances featuring 1,000+ singers
  • “Wall of sound” production techniques with many overlayed takes or layered tracks (e.g. Enya’s producer typically layers her voice 30 times in a single track)

Unison sound sources aren’t a “hack” that automatically gives listeners chills. Our data suggests that when using this technique, it helps to:

  • Simple rhythm, slower tempo
  • ….
  • ….

Anecdote: Composers and producers often go to great lengths to enhance tonal volume. Spitfire Audio’s cello sample has 60 celli pl;aying simultaneously, the Dunkirk soundtrack reportedly featured 32 double basses, and Berlioz famously called for eight timpanists (not 8 timpani, 8 separate timpani parts) in his Grande Messe des morts. This may help explain why Berlioz’s Requiem was one of the most popular classical submissions to our dataset.

Our listener data indicates that many sound sources simultaneously playing loud, interlocking rhythms often induce frisson. This technique creates a  prolonged “wash” of sound through staggered lead and supporting lines  that mesh together. Often this takes the form of many unison low-tonal volume instruments in unison combined with a smaller number of high-tonal volume instruments playing a different line. The result can be a “big”, enveloping sound that is highly effective for frisson.

In chills-inducing passages, some of the most reliable ways we see composers and performers using this technique include:

  • High-tonal volume instruments in lead lines (e.g. brass, percussion) with many unison low-tonal volume instruments in supporting line (e.g. strings, woodwinds)
  • Many unison low-tonal volume instruments in lead lines (e.g. chorus, strings) with high-tonal volume instruments in supporting line (e.g. brass, percussion)
  • Audience applause and crowd swells

Loud, rhythmically busy material isn’t a “hack” that automatically give listeners chills. Our data suggests that when using this technique, it helps to:

  • Placement:
  • Context: Feature busy rhythms with short rhythmic values in the baseline that blend and create a foundation of high tonal volume for the lead line to enhance
  • Follow-Up: Prolong the high tonal volume passage to re-assure listeners it is intentional and create space for a positive listener appraisal response

Anecdote: We consistently see listeners reporting chills during sudden swells in audience applause. While there are likely some intervening social effects from knowing other listeners are excited or being moved by the music, applause is also a clear example of many similar sound sources playing loud, non-unison rhythms that can meld into an overall wash of sound.

Our listener data indicates that certain progressions between chords that are “far apart” harmonically and share few common notes often induce frisson. These chords are far apart chromatically (number of changed accidentals) and on the circle of fifths. Unlike the four techniques above that mimic sounds in nature that denote size and space, this harmonic technique works because of learned associations. Artists in Western music have creatively decided to use large harmonic shifts to represents themes of distance, size, and space, which has in turn led audiences to absorb and make the association whenever we hear these moves. Many now even refer to these shifts as “god chords” and “space chords”.

In chills-inducing passages, some of the most reliable ways we see composers and performers using to achieve this method include:

  • Certain abrupt modulations between distant keys, especially chromatic mediants (I-bIII, I-III, I-bVI, I-VI and minor equivalents), “far fifths” (e.g., i-IV) and tritone transpositions between major triads (e.g. I-bV)
  • Undulations or valving between unrelated keys
  • Extended sequences and cycles across distant keys, often using the hexatonic and octatonic scales

These progressions aren’t “hacks” that automatically give listeners chills. Our data suggest that when using this technique, it helps to: 

  • Arpeggios to make listeners hear the chord
  • Alternating or in quick succession to increase disorientation
  • Use open voicing
  • Surround with conventionally diatonic progressions to make them especially striking
  • Emphasizing with orchestration and dynamics
Anecdote: Scott Murphy tritons

Technique 1 – High tonal-volume instruments

Genre

Song

Frisson Moment Flagged By Listeners

Link

Pop

Contact

Daft Punk

0:56 

Alternative / Indie

My Body Is a Cage

Arcade Fire

From 2:09

Rock / Metal

Finally Free

Dream Theater

4:00 

Dance / Electronic

Loyal

ODESZA

0:48 

Hip-Hop / R&B

B.O.B.

OutKast

From 0:06

Classical

Dies Irae – Grande Messe de Morts

Berlioz

11:19 

Film Music

Anything is Possible (The Matrix)

Don Davis

2:46-2:56

Film Music

Stay (Interstellar)

Hans Zimmer

From 5:35

Soundtracks

The Music Of The Night (The Phantom of the Opera) 

Andrew Lloyd Webber 

From 4:15

Other

2015 Hornline Warmup 

Bluecoats Drum and Bugle Corps

From 1:07

Technique 2 – Reverb and echo

Genre

Song

Frisson Moment Flagged By Listeners

Link

Pop

Bitter Sweet Symphony

The Verve

From 0:11

Alternative / Indie

Clocks

Coldplay

Opening

Rock / Metal

Tomorrow Never Knows

The Beatles

0:07-0:10

Rock / Metal

Touching the Golden Cloud

Disperse

From 2:22

Dance / Electronic

Innerbloom

Rüfüs Du Sol

From 5:45

Hip-hop / R&B

Mo Bamba

Sheck Wes

2:17-2:19

Classical

Symphony No. 1 – Mvt. 1

Theofanidis

From 1:04

Film Music

Nightcrawler (Nightcrawler)

James Newton Howard

From 1:15

Soundtrack

Top Gun Anthem

Harold Faltermeyer & Steve Stevens

3:23-3:26

Other

The Bottom

MICHELLE & Sofia D’Angelo

2:29

Technique 3 – Many unison sound sources

Genre

Song

Frisson Moment Flagged By Listeners

Link

Pop

We’ll Meet Again

Vera Lynn

From 1:29

Alternative / Indie

Closer To the Edge

Thirty Seconds to Mars

From 2:48

Rock / Metal

The City

The Chariot

From 3:07

Rock / Metal

Kingdom

Devin Townsend Project

From 2:15

Hip-Hop / R&B

Ultralight Beam

Kanye West

5:00-5:02

Country / Folk

Amazing Grace

Judy Collins

From 2:43

Classical

Symphony No. 7 – Mvt. 2

Beethoven

From 2:10

Film Music

Storm is Coming (Mad Max: Fury Road)

Junkie XL

From 2:41

Soundtrack

August’s Rhapsody (August Rush)

Mark Mancina

From 4:06

Other

Calon Lân

The Black Mountain Male Chorus

From 0:47

Technique 4 – Fill out the frequency range

Genre

Song

Frisson Moment Flagged By Listeners

Link

Pop

Shape of You

Ed Sheeran

From 3:09

Alternative / Indie

The Cave

Mumford & Sons

From 2:45

Rock / Metal

First Breath After Coma

Explosions In the Sky

From 8:22

Dance / Electronic

Opus

Eric Prydz 

From 3:32

Hip-Hop / R&B

Die This Way

Hopsin

From 3:41

Country / Folk

Like A Cowboy

Randy Houser

From 0:48

Classical

Addio fiorito asil (Madama Butterly)

Puccini

From 1:39

Film Music

Test Drive (How To Train Your Dragon)

John Powell

From 2:01

Soundtracks

Defying Gravity (Wicked)

Kristin Chenoweth & Idina Menzel

From 4:32

Other

My World Needs You

Kirk Franklin

From 5:37

Technique 5 – Harmonic “distance”

Genre

Song

Frisson Moment Flagged By Listeners

Link

Pop

Run Boy Run

Woodkid

From 1:11

Alternative / Indie

Everyday

Carly Comando

From 0:13

Rock / Metal

Ki

Devin Townsend Project

From 6:34

Dance / Electronic

Moonwalker

Wilkinson

From 0:23

Hip-Hop / R&B

xxx

xxx

xxx

Classical

Symphony No. 8 – Mvt. 4

Bruckner 

Into 14:07

Film Music

The Lighting of the Beacons (The Lord of the Rings)

Howard Shore

4:22-4:56

Film Music

The Hours

Philip Glass

4:04

Soundtracks

Dragonborn (Skyrim)

Jeremy Soule

3:12-3:15

Other

Tuesday

Max Richter

16:59

Listens to thousands more examples in our Library