Proximity

Mimic the acoustics of a close or approaching sound source

“After that whisper thing at 1:01 my hairs were literally about to run off my body.”

Definition

The Proximity pattern is a set of auditory cues that make listeners feel an unnerving sense of intimacy or approach. Very close and very fast approaching sounds share a set of distinct acoustic features. It’s theorized that our brains evolved a heightened sensitivity to these features because we have limited time to defend ourselves if the source producing them turns out to be dangerous. The more abruptly artists introduce proximity cues into their music, and the more performers intensify the unique features that distinguish them, the more likely we are to experience chills.

Listen to examples

Mechanism

When musicians use the Proximity pattern they can trick our brain’s object localization system. This system uses a distinction between peri-personal (~6 inches around our body) and extra-personal space ( >6 inches around our body) to prioritize signals from our environment. Our brain always prioritizes and urgently processes any sounds in, or about to cross into, our peri-personal space. Think of how you can ignore a buzzing fly until it comes close to your ear, but then you can’t help but unconsciously swat it away even though you know it isn’t dangerous. Researchers have confirmed that looming sounds in our peri-personal space are correlated with increased skin conductance and other well-known markers of frisson.

Technique #1: Non-linear crescendos

The first Proximity technique involves accelerating increases in loudness. Sound intensity is a reliable indicator of distance; even if decibel level is constant, closer sounds are louder because the sound waves have less space to cover (so the same acoustic energy is spread over a smaller area). Non-linear crescendos can therefore trick our brain into reacting as if a large object is quickly approaching our peri-personal space.

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

  • Rapid swells with pitch held constant: rapid flourishes lasting <1 sec, frequently featuring prominent swells on overdubbed vocals with a pronounced “airy” sound (but firmly in the comfortable range of the singers so the vocals can project as much as possible)
  • Certain staggered builds: lasting 2-4 seconds and quickly layering timbres over each other to enhance the build-up, frequently featured in the lead-up to a climax or resolution moment when listeners are distracted by the harmonic progression (making the increase in loudness as jarring as possible)
  • Impulse timbres that fill in upper and lower frequencies: struck quickly and repeatedly, typically filling lower frequencies (rolls on timpani or bass drum) and higher frequencies (suspended cymbal, triangle, tam-tam) simultaneously before giving way to melodic instruments on the climax 

Don’t interpret this technique as a “hack” that automatically results in chills. Not just any swell on a suspended cymbal will work. Whether listeners experience frisson depends on the preceding context and technical aspects of the rate and amount of change in sound intensity. 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 Proximity pattern.

Anecdote: Among classical submissions, many listeners (including the staff at Classicfm) point to the transition between the 3rd and 4th movements of Beethoven’s famous Symphony No.5 as goosebump-inducing. Listeners report peak frisson on the accelerating swell right before the start of the 4th movement.

Technique #2: Non-linear increases in brightness

The second Proximity technique involves accelerating increases of acoustic energy in higher frequencies (“brightness”). Brightness is a reliable indicator of distance. As sound travels through the air, it loses energy in higher frequencies faster than in lower frequencies. Non-linear upward sweeps can therefore trick our brain into reacting as if something or someone is rapidly approaching our peri-personal space. 

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

  • Certain continuous, upward sweeps: accelerating, rough glissandos or step-wise motion into upper frequencies, typically ambient flourishes divorced from any melodic movement or harmonic progression
  • Certain discontinuous rising lines: that abruptly skip an octave or switch from a muted to unmuted timbres in the middle of a phrase (typically upward arpeggios or similar step-wise figures that make the change in brightness as jarring as possible)
  • “Noisy” timbres with concentrated upper harmonics: especially white-noise risers, pads, wind chimes, suspended cymbals, or piano with pedal down, typically paired with heavy reverb    

Don’t interpret this technique as a “hack” that automatically results in chills. Just inserting a white noise riser before a drop won’t work. Whether listeners experience frisson depends on the preceding context and certain qualities of the roughness and amount of change in brightness. 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 Proximity pattern.

Anecdote: Many listeners flagged the vocal entrance at 1:15 in Drake’s “Passionfruit” as frisson-inducing. This moment feature a dramatic shift from muted synths, which listeners had entrained to for over a minute during the prolonged intro, into Drake’s close-mic’d vocals backed by unmuted synths.

Technique #3: Whispering and breathiness

The third Proximity technique involves whispering or “airy” singing in lead vocals. In non-musical contexts, we produce quiet, “breathy” sounds when we want our voice to only be heard by someone very close to us (i.e. in or near our peri-personal space). Microphones and headphones, however, can create the illusion that a whispering singer is in our peri-personal space. This often moves listeners to frisson.

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

  • “Whisper-pop” singing: switching from chest voice to a more “breathy” sound, usually at the tailing end of a long exposed note in the middle of a phrase, or at the start of a new section with several breathy notes in quick succession (often on the upbeat to make the onset of the proximity cue as jarring as possible)
  • Close mic’d vocals: singers recorded in studios with no resonances or reflectors in the room – and the vocalist right up against the mic – to achieve an especially crisp sound that enables listeners to hear every inhalation and movement of the mouth, tongue, and lips (all to enhance the sensation of intimacy)
  • Certain reed instruments that produce an “airy” sound: mimicking the sound of a “breathy” singer, in particular the saxophone which many musicians – dating back to the classical opera composer Puccini – claim sounds the most like the human voice

Don’t interpret this technique as a “hack” that automatically results in chills. Just suddenly switching from singing to whispering in lead vocals won’t work. Whether listeners experience frisson depends on the preceding context and technical features of the “breathy” sound. 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 Proximity pattern.

Anecdote: This technique has become so popular in modern music that some commentators have gone so far as to label the trend “whisper-pop”. Sia’s “Breath Me”, which gained prominence when it was featured on the finale of the TV show Six Feet Under, is a particularly frequent submission to our dataset of frisson moments.

Technique #4: Rapid inter-ear variation

The fourth Proximity technique involves sounds that vary in arrival time and intensity across the left vs. right ear. “Inter-aural differences” are reliable indicators of location that our brain uses to detect close or approaching objects. Rapid variation between ears, however, can create the illusion of multiple objects very close to us, or one object moving rapidly around us. This can often startle us and give us chills.

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

  • Rapid alternating panning: where the music (or one of the tracks) is temporarily concentrated into the left or right earbud (or speaker) and then alternates between the left and right earbuds quickly and at a non-linear rate, typically paired with reverb and sustained notes to create a feeling of being “enveloped” 
  • Spatial production effects: where stereo tracks are edited with varying reverb and mixing to diminish or enhance the perception of closeness, frequently used in EDM to make the music feel like it is fading and “moving away” from the listener before a drop and then suddenly jumping “closer” on the drop itself
  • “3D” recording techniques: binaural recordings, multiple mics positioned across a recording studio, and other production methods to make sounds appear as if they are moving around listeners (this is essentially the idea behind rapid alternating panning taken to its logical extreme)

Don’t interpret this technique as a “hack” that automatically results in chills. Just panning the music quickly from right to left won’t work. Whether listeners experience frisson depends on the preceding context and the rate and amount of panning between the ears. 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 Alarm pattern.

Anecdote: Led Zeppelin’s 1969 hit “Whole Lotta Love” is a popular rock submission to our dataset of frisson moments. Listeners call out the panning section starting around 1:44, and the “reverse echo” technique starting around 4:01 (and pioneered by Jimmie Page and Eddie Kramer), as especially chills-inducing. 

Technique #5: ASMR sounds

The fifth Proximity technique involves what researchers refer to as ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response). ASMR sounds are quiet, subtle, and tend to involve an object changing states (e.g. wood crackling in a fire, paper being crumpling into a ball, etc.). Because we aren’t able to hear them in real life unless we are close to the source, in music these sounds can trigger a sudden, chills-inducing sense of proximity.

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

  • Certain crunching or crackling sounds: mimicking the noises produced when objects are broken into pieces or otherwise change states, for example slowly tearing a piece of paper, rustling a pile of dry leaves, or rapidly popping bubble wrap
  • Certain wet sounds: mimicking the noises produced by liquids hitting surfaces or changing states, for example rain falling onto a textured surface, a carbonated drink being poured into a glass and bubbling, or water swooshing irregularly in a container being flipped up and down
  • Certain clicking or fluttering sounds: mimicking the noises produced by two objects quietly making contact with each other, like fingers tapping on a typewriter, scissors opening and closing rapidly, or spoken sounds that feature our tongue hitting the top of our mouth (tk, ts, sk, ch, etc,)

Don’t interpret this technique as a “hack” that automatically results in chills. Just playing a recording of a piece of paper being crumpled won’t work. Whether listeners experience frisson depends on the preceding context and various technical features of the ASMR cues. 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 Proximity pattern.

Anecdote: One of the signatures of pop star Billie Eilish, and a likely contributor to her success, is her innovative use of ASMR sounds. Through various production techniques (close mics, etc.), Eilish creates an unnerving and highly effective sensation of closeness that many listeners say gives them chills.

Examples of Technique 1: Non-linear crescendos

Genre

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

Song

This Is Me
Orinoco Flow
10,000 (Wings Pt. 2)
I Could Use A Love Song
Look Back At It
You Were Right
Scheherazde – The Kalendar Prince
Mind Heist (Inception trailer)
Wings of Liberty (Starcraft II)
Final Trailer – Beauty and the Beast

Artist

Keala Settle
Enya
Tool
Maren Morris
A Boogie Wit da Hoodie
Rufus du Sol
Rimsky-Korsakov
Zach Hemsey
Glenn Stafford
Disney

Frisson Moment Flagged by Listeners

3:16-3:17
2:12-2:14
5:36-5:38
0:47-0:49
2:38-2:40
1:08-1:10
9:26-9:27
2:42-2:44
3:06-3:08
1:45-1:47

Examples of Technique 2 - Non-linear increases in brightness

Genre

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

Song

Sun Models
Quarrel
Silvera
Austin
Cocoa Butter Kisses
This Time Around (feat. Koo)
Dance Macabre, Op. 40
Panoramic (The Book of Eli)
To Know, Water (Abzu)
Playstation Startup Music

Artist

ODESZA
Moses Sumney
Gojira
Blake Shelton
Chance the Rapper
KOAN Sound & Asa
Saint-Saens
Atticus Ross
Austin Wintory
Sony

Frisson Moment Flagged by Listeners

1:04-1:05
2:27-2:29
2:02-2:04
3:02-3:04
0:13-0:14
0:07-0:09
5:28-5:31
5:10-5:15
0:13-0:14
0:07-0:08

Examples of Technique 3 - Whispering and Breathiness

Genre

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

Song

Faith
Skinny Love
Personal Jesus
Brother
Focus
Show Me Love (Skrillex Remix)
Macarthur Park
May It Be (Lord of the Rings)
A New Life (Jekyll & Hyde)
Song of Ancients (Popola)

Artist

George Michael
Birdy
Depeche Mode
Uncle Jed
H.E.R.
Hundred Waters
Maynard Ferguson
Enya
Frank Wildhorn
Square Enix Musix

Frisson Moment Flagged by Listeners

1:20-1:22
0:13-0:17
2:15
3:29-3:52
2:53-3:00
0:00
1:38
2:19
0:32-0:33
0:04

Examples of Technique 4 - Rapid Inter-ear Variation

Genre

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

Song

Oblivion
xanny
House Burning Down
Fun Tonight
This Is America
All My Friends
Fly
Legend of Kai (Kung Fu Panda 3)
Adventure (Fez)
Office Telephone

Artist

Grimes
Billie Eilish
Jimi Hendrix
Lady Gaga
Childish Gambino
Madeon
Ludovico Einaudi
Hans Zimmer
Disasterpeace
Youth Lagoon

Frisson Moment Flagged by Listeners

0:48-0:52
0:44-0:47
0:02-0:05
1:07-1:08
1:46-1:47
2:13-2:16
3:26
0:58
0:00
2:48

Examples of Technique 5 - ASMR sounds

Genre

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

Song

The Shadow
Weak Spot
Love Letters (Soulwax Remix)
9 to 5
Dancing With a Stranger
A Wonderful Feeling
Codex purpureus
72 Degrees and Sunny (Wall-E)
Puzzle
Bait and Chase (Alien 3)

Artist

Millie Turner
FKA twigs
Metronomy
Dolly Parton
Sam Smith & Normani
Pogo
Salvatore Sciarrino
Thomas Newman
Jeremy Zuckerman
Elliot Goldenthal

Frisson Moment Flagged by Listeners

1:34
2:32
0:40
1:10
0:00
0:00
10:13
0:35
1:21-1:31
2:47

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