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

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 have a heightened sensitivity to these features because we have limited time to defend ourselves if the nearby 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 below 

Mechanism

When musicians use the Proximity pattern, they 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: Loudness

The first Proximity technique involves non-linear increases in loudness. Loudness is a reliable indicator of distance because the sound waves of close sounds have less space to cover, so the same acoustic energy is spread over a smaller area than distant sounds. In chills-inducing passages, the most reliable ways we see artists pull this off are:

  • Non-linear crescendos: certain accelerating increases in loudness that start at a very low dB level, last 1-2 seconds, and feature constant pitch or consistent inharmonic noise (e.g. suspended cymbal rolls, vocal swells, etc.)
  • Transitions from muted to unmuted sounds: step-wise shifts from quiet, noticeably muted sounds to moderate volume, unmuted versions of the same sound (e.g. muted to unmuted trumpet, turning a compressor off, etc.)
  • Changing distance from recording device: sudden transitions from sounds that are noticeably distant from the audience to the same sound noticeably closer with no absolute change in dB level (e.g. off-stage vs. on-stage instruments, normal vs. close-mic’d vocals, etc.)

Don’t interpret this technique as a “hack” that automatically results in chills. Not just any swell on a suspended cymbal will work by itself. Artistry is required in the set-up, follow-up, and execution.

Technique #2: Brightness

The second Proximity technique involves non-linear increases in brightness. Brightness is a reliable indicator of distance because as sound travels through the air it loses acoustic energy faster in higher frequencies than lower frequencies. In chills-inducing passages, the most reliable ways we see artists pull this off are:

  • Upward sweeps: where an artist features an accelerating glissando or rapid, chromatic step-wise motion into upper frequencies, typically isolated, ambient flourishes divorced from any melodic movement or harmonic progression to focus listeners on the proximity cue
  • Repeated rising lines: where an artist repeats a short motif several times but jumps up an interval on each repetition (usually a third or an octave), typically enhancing each repetition with added timbres or switching from muted to unmuted sounds to bring out the later, “brighter” repetitions
  • “Noisy” timbres: where an artist features certain instruments that effectively concentrate and bring out energy in upper frequencies, including white-noise risers, pads, wind chimes, suspended cymbals, or piano with pedal down, all typically paired with heavy reverb to prolong the high-brightness sounds    

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 by itself. 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 this technique.

Technique #3: Voicelessness

The third Proximity technique involves whispering and other forms of intimate vocals enhanced by microphonesIn chills-inducing passages, the most reliable ways we see artists pull this off are:

  • Whispering and “whisper-pop” singing: when a vocalist switching from chest voice to head voice or falsetto and adjusts their soft palette to create a more “breathy” sound, usually at the tailing end of a long exposed note or on the upbeat of a new section to make the onset as jarring as possible for listeners
  • Close mic’d vocals: where a produces records an artist in a studio with limited reflectors or resonances and positions the mic right up against the vocalist’s mouth to achieve an especially crisp sound that enables listeners to hear every inhalation and movement of the mouth, tongue, and lips
  • Certain reed instruments that produce an “airy” sound: where an artist feature the quiet entrance of certain timbres that can mimic the sound of a “breathy” singer, including the flute, oboe, and saxophone (the opera composer Puccini claimed the saxophone is the instrument closest to 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 this technique.

Technique #4: Inter-ear variation

The fourth Proximity technique involves sounds that vary in arrival time and intensity across the left vs. right ear (or speaker). In chills-inducing passages, the most reliable ways we see artists pull this off are:

  • Rapid alternating panning: where an artist temporarily concentrates the music (or one of the tracks)  into the left or right earbud (or speaker), and then alternates between the earbuds quickly and at a non-linear rate, typically paired with reverb and sustained notes to create a feeling of being “surrounded” 
  • Spatial production effects: where an artist edits stereo tracks with varying reverb and mixing to diminish or enhance the perception of closeness, typically used in EDM to make it feel like the music is moving “away” from the listener before a drop before suddenly jumping “closer” on the drop itself
  • “3D” recording techniques: where an artist uses binaural recordings, multiple mic positions across a recording studio, and other production methods to make sounds appear as if they are moving “around” a listener (with up/down movement beyond the standard left/right achieved with panning)

Don’t interpret this technique as a “hack” that automatically results in chills. Just panning the music quickly back and won’t work by itself. 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 this technique.

Technique #5: ASMR sounds

The fifth Proximity technique involves a unique set of sounds that trigger a sensation called autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR). ASMR sounds are diverse, but the comment element is that they make listeners feel very close to the sound source. In chills-inducing passages, the most reliable ways we see artists pull this off are:

  • “Dry” crackling noise: recordings (or similar sound effects) of solid objects changing physical states and producing random continuous noises, for example wood popping in a fire, paper crumpling into a ball, dry leaves rustling, or rapidly popping bubble wrap
  • “Wet” crackling noise: recordings (or similar sound effects) of liquids changing physical states and producing random continuous nosies, for example carbonated liquid bubbling while being poured into a glass, liquid hissing while evaporating into steam, rain drizzling onto a textured surface, or liquid sloshing within a rotating container 
  • Irregular clicking or fluttering sounds: recordings (of similar sound effects) of objects making contact and producing sounds that are difficult to hear without being close to the objects, for example fingers tapping a typewriter, scissors opening and closing, or vocal sounds where the tongue hits the top of the mouth (tk, ts, sk, ch)

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 by itself. 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 this technique.

Examples of Technique 1: Loudness

Genre

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

Song

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

Artist

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

Frisson Moment Reported by Listeners

2:33-2:34
2:12-2:14
5:36-5:38
0:47-0:49
2:38-2:40
1:08-1:10
9:26-9:27
3:16-3:17
3:06-3:08
1:45-1:47

Examples of Technique 2 - Brightness

Genre

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

Song

Sun Models
Quarrel
Silvera
Mama’s Broken Heart
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
Miranda Lambert
Chance the Rapper
KOAN Sound & Asa
Saint-Saens
Atticus Ross
Austin Wintory
Sony

Frisson Moment Reported by Listeners

1:04-1:05
2:27-2:29
2:02-2:04
0:26-0:27
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 - Voicelessness

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 Reported 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 - Inter-ear Variation

Genre

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

Song

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

Artist

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

Frisson Moment Reported by Listeners

1:07-1:08
0:44-0:47
0:02-0:05
2:16-2:18
1:46-1:47
0:48-0:52
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
Medicine
Love Letters (Soulwax Remix)
9 to 5
Dancing With a Stranger
A Wonderful Feeling
Codex purpureus
72 Degrees and Sunny (Wall-E)
River Rocket (Swiss Army Man)
Bait and Chase (Alien 3)

Artist

Millie Turner
Daughter
Metronomy
Dolly Parton
Sam Smith & Normani
Pogo
Salvatore Sciarrino
Thomas Newman
Andy Hull & Robert McDowell
Elliot Goldenthal

Frisson Moment Reported by Listeners

1:34
2:15
0:40
1:10
0:00
0:00
10:13
0:35
0:24
2:47

Listens to more examples in the Qbrio Library