Epic

Mimic the acoustics of a large sound source

 

“Total eargasm. When those horns kick in its so frickin epic and awe-inspiring.”

An Epic pattern is when you use sounds that mimic the acoustics produced by big sound sources. Large people, animals, and objects produces sounds that have consistent, distinctive auditory cues: high tonal volume (a combination of sound pressure, resonance, and concentrated acoustic energy at lower frequency levels, sometime also referred to as acoustic “extensity”), low fundamental frequencies (given that size is generally associated with the lowest possible frequency an individual or object can produce), and loudness (or sound intensity). The more abruptly you introduce aggression cues into your music, and the more you intensify the acoustic properties that distinguish them, the more likely audiences are to experience chills.

The Epic pattern can trigger a frisson-inducing fear response because it tricks our auditory system for judging the size of objects into thinking a dangerous sound source is nearby.

Humans and animals use tonal volume to estimate the size of the unknown source (e.g., footsteps in the dark, voice around the corner, growl in the distance). Tonal Volume is distinct from loudness. It involves a combination of frequency, resonance, and pressure that concentrates certain acoustic energies in lower frequencies (see here and 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 – we think the sound source is that produces it.  

Tonal volume is a relatively under-researched acoustic variable, but this is rapidly changing. While conductor 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 across listeners. 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. These are new findings and researchers are still teasing out how various combinations of instruments blend and how this varies by register, mute, and mouthpiece.

Our data indicates that when you feature loud, lower pitch horn entrances, especially French horns, mellophones, and Wagner tuba, this can often induce frisson in listeners. Researchers have confirmed that horns are one of the highest tonal volume-producing instruments. Studies have also shown that horns blend well acoustically with each other and with other instruments (e.g. strings, tam-tam, choir, and tenor in the example clips below), further boosting tonal volume when they sound in unison. This all makes horns highly effective for frisson.

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

  • French horn entrances, typically sounded as a unison section
  • Mellophone entrances, often surrounded by a broader hornline in marching ensembles
  • Use of Wagner “tuba”, which combines elements of French horns and trombones (famously used in Wagner’s Ring Cycle and Strauss’s Alpine Symphony)

Don’t interpret this to mean that any large melodic leap will automatically give listeners chills. Our data suggests that when using this technique, it helps to:

  • Place horn entrances at the end of cadences or climax of phrases to make them a conspicuous as possible for listeners
  • Have horn entrances introduce new melodic material to make them as conspicuous as possible
  • Hold and or repeat the main notes of horn entrances to re-assure listeners and create space for a positive listener appraisal response

Anecdote: Marching band hornline warmup clips and “closer” moments from Drum Corp 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 French horn (just with an outward facing bell), further proof for the unique power of horns. In Score: A Film Music Documentary, when Steve Jablonsky describes the effectiveness of the French horn in the song “Lockdown” from Transformers, without naming it as such he is describing tonal volume. 

Our data indicates that when you feature sudden, loud entrances of timbres that concentrate acoustic energy at low frequency levels, including trombone, tuba, organ, choir, bass drum, and timpani (“dark” timbres), this can often induce frisson in listeners. Researchers have confirmed the central importance of concentrated, low frequency acoustic energy for boosting tonal volume. Especially at low registers and loud dynamic levels, these “dark” timbres are highly effective at achieving that concentration of acoustic energy. This makes trombone, tuba, organ, choir, bass drum, and timpani entrances highly effective for frisson.

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

  • Pipe organ, bagpipes, and choir entrances in lower registers
  • Trombones and tuba, especially bass trombones whose sound is very concentrated at the start of notes because it is projected from such a small bell
  • Bass drum, timpani, and other percussion “effect” instruments like thunder sheet and hammer blow (or even the canons featured during the 1812 Overture)

Don’t interpret this to mean that any time these instruments are played they automatically give listeners chills. Our data suggests that when using this technique, it helps to:

  • Feature these entrances at surprising moments like the climax of a cadence, when listeners are distracted by the melodic and harmonic movement
  • Sound these timbres with fast-attack entrance that concentrate energy at the beginning of the note to make them as jarring as possible
  • Sustain or repeat the entrance to re-assure listeners it is intentional and create space for a positive listener appraisal response

Our data indicates that when you use recording and production techniques to create persistent, ambient reverberations in your music, this 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. The result is a rich, full sound and enveloping atmosphere that is highly attention-grabbing.

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

  • Reverb
  • Echo
  • Delay

Don’t interpret this to mean that any instance of added reverb will automatically give listeners chills. Our data suggests that when using this technique, it helps to:

  • The timbres we saw most consistently in these passages were string instruments, humming choir, electric guitar, wind chimes, and various synths.
  • We noted that these passages tend to involve a repeated or sustained motif, which perhaps leads listeners to focus more on the timbres than the melody.
  • Hold the high note of the leap, or repeat a leap, to re-assure listeners the melodic violation is intentional and create space for a positive listener appraisal response

Anecdote: Canadian Metal musician Devin Townsend is well known for his extensive use of this technique in his works, employing gratuitous use of delays and reverb on the guitar, keyboard and vocal tracks, while at the same time overlaying multiple takes for a rich, full sound and atmosphere. Townsend uses these techniques on the making of Strapping Young Lad’s Alien album. It was the centerpiece of Phil Spector’s famous “wall of sound” technique in the 1960s that featured recordings in studios with exceptional echo chambers. Spector even described this sound as “a Wagnerian approach to rock & roll.” One study of EDM music proposes that certain ambient timbres produce chills because they encourage a form of engaged but relaxed listening that is conducive to being moved. This may be the key ingredient across the texture choices that are paired with reverb to achieve the technique.

Our 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 techniques we see composers and performers using to achieve this method include:

  • Unison string passages, often after a solo section featuring a low-tonal volume instrument like violin or oboe
  • Unison vocal passages, popular listener submissions included crowd singing at rock concerts and 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 for a single track)

Don’t interpret this to mean that any large melodic leap will automatically give listeners chills. Our data suggests that when using this technique, it helps to:

  • Simple, rhythm slower tempo
  • Use leaps at the beginning of song or new section to make them especially conspicuous
  • Pair leaps with reduced orchestration (often solo vocals), monophonic texture, and slower tempos to focus listeners on the melodic movement and prevent non-melodic distractions
  • Hold the high note of the leap, or repeat a leap, to re-assure listeners the melodic violation is intentional and create space for a positive listener appraisal response

Anecdote: Composers and producers go to great lengths to enhance tonal volume: Spitfire Audio’s cello sample has 60 celli playing simultaneously, the Dunkirk soundtrack used 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 to explain why Berlioz’s Requiem was a popular classical submission to our dataset. 

Our data indicates that when you feature many sound sources in the lead and supporting lines simultaneously playing loud interlocking rhythms, this can often induce frisson in listeners. Unlike Method 4 above that creates a cohesive “wall” of sound through unison, this method creates a messier, prolonged “wash” of sound through staggered lines that mesh together. This often takes the form of many unison low-tonal volume instruments combined with a smaller number of high-tonal volume instruments. The result can be a “big”, enveloping sound that is highly effective for frisson.

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

  • High-tonal volume instruments in lead line (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 line (e.g. chorus, strings) with high-tonal volume instruments in supporting line (e.g. brass, percussion)
  • Audience applause

Don’t interpret this to mean that any tutti orchestra playing loud, rhythmically busy material will automatically give listeners chills. Our data suggests that when using this technique, it helps to:

  • 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
  • Prolong the high tonal volume passage to re-assure listeners it is intentional and create space for a positive listener appraisal response

Anecdote: One anecdote that helps illuminate this method is applause. We consistently see listeners reporting chills during sudden swells in audience applause in recordings. While they 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.

Listen to thousands more example clips in our Frisson Database