Proximity

Mimic the acoustics of a close or approaching sound source

 

“That trumpet crescendo kills me man. Goosebumps. Every. Time.”

A Proximity pattern is when you create sounds that mimic the auditory cues humans use to determine if a sound source is approaching or in close proximity. Cues indicating an approaching sound source include non-linear increases in sound intensity (“loudness”) and higher frequency content (“brightness”). Cues indicating a sound source in close proximity include inter-ear time and volume, murmured speech, and crinkling sounds. The more abruptly you introduce proximity cues into your music, and the more you intensify the acoustic properties that distinguish them, the more likely audiences are to experience chills.

The Proximity pattern can trigger a frisson-inducing fear response by tricking our brain’s object localization system into thinking something or someone potentially dangerous is nearby.

It’s theorized that we are highly sensitive to approaching or nearby sound sources (collectively called “looming” sounds by researchers) because we have less time to defend ourselves if they turn out to be dangerous. Think of how you can ignore a buzzing fly until it comes close to your ear and then cannot help but unconsciously swat it away, even though consciously you know the fly is harmless. Researchers have found that looming sounds are correlated with increased skin conductance and other defensive responses that are well-known markers of frisson.

A common feature across approach and proximity cues is the distinction between peri-personal vs. extra personal spacePeri-personal space is the roughly six inches immediately surrounding our bodies. Different parts of our brain active to prioritize and process sounds in peri-personal space more quickly that sounds in extra-personal space. Proximity and intimacy cues can result in chills when they indicate an unknown sound source is already in our peri-personal space. Approach cues can result in chills when they make it appear that a sound source in extra-personal space is about to quickly enter our peri-personal space.

Innate human responsiveness to intimacy cues is likely the biological foundation for the exploding ASMR movement. How else can one explain the fact that tens of millions of people watch Youtube videos of people whispering into different sides of a microphone, clicking their fingernails on hard surfaces, and crinkling sheets of paper?

Our data indicates that when you feature accelerating crescendos that involve a large, absolute change in sound intensity, this can often induce frisson in listeners. This method is effective because loudness is an indicator of how far away a sound source is from us. Even if decibel level is held constant, closer sounds are louder than distant sounds because the sound waves have less distance to cover and the same amount of acoustic energy is spread over a smaller area. Researchers have confirmed that we all have an innate responsiveness to accelerating, rising sound intensity. Because they can indicate a rapidly approaching – and therefore potentially dangerous – sound source, non-linear crescendos are especially effective for frisson.

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

  • Fast swells (<1 sec) on one or multiple unison timbres (i.e. monophonic texture)
  • Slower swells (2-3 sec) where timbre entrances are staggered to enhance the build-up

Don’t interpret this to mean that every crescendo automatically gives listeners chills. Our data suggests that when using this technique, it helps to:

  • Precede crescendos with quieter, lower-pitched sections – often including a silent pause right before the swell itself – to accentuate the change in acoustic energy
  • Place crescendos at the end of cadences or during exposed transitions between sections to make the swell as conspicuous as possible for listeners
  • Re-start the baseline or a new supporting line immediately after the crescendo to re-assure listeners and create space for a positive appraisal response

Our data indicates that when you feature accelerating sweeps that increase acoustic energy at higher frequencies, this can often induce frisson in listeners. This method is effective because brightness is a reliable indicator of how far away a sound source is from us. As sound travels through the air, it loses more energy in higher frequency regions of the spectrum than in lower frequency regions. Distant sounds are therefore less “bright” that close sounds. Because they can indicate a rapidly approaching sound source, non-linear increases in brightness are therefore especially effective for frisson.

Note: This method is frequently combined with Method 1 above (and vice versa).

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

  • Gradual rising fundamental frequencies such as pitch glides
  • “Noisy” timbres that are more concentrated in upper harmonics, especially synths with heavy reverb, high-register vocals and strings, cymbals, and gongs

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:

  • Pair these sweeps with slower tempos and reduced melodic and harmonic movement to focus listeners on the changing brightness and prevent non-acoustic distractions
  • Use reverb, echo, and rapid rhythmic movement to make sweeps especially “noisy” and as conspicuous as possible for listeners
  • Hold the high note of the sweep and leave a rest after it to create space for a positive listener appraisal response

Our data indicates that when you vary the timing and intensity of a sound’s arrival across a listener’s two ears, this can often induce frisson. The key to this method is that interaural differences are indicators of a sound source’s location. A single sound source tends to come from one location and move continuously. Rapid inter-ear variation in loudness, frequency, and timing can create the illusion of multiple sound sources very close to us, or one sound source moving rapidly around us. Both interpretations are potentially threatening and can trigger a defensive response. This makes interaural differences especially effective for frisson.

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

  • Alternating panning, where you temporarily concentrate the music (or one of the tracks) into the left or right earbud or speaker
  • Binaural recordings that use two microphones that create a 3D stereo sound sensation
  • “8D” audio effects, an extension of panning where stereo tracks are edited with pronounced spatial reverb and mixing

Don’t interpret this to mean that every time you pan music hard left or right that listeners will automatically get chills. Our data suggests that when using this technique, it helps to:

  • Use leaps at the very opening of songs or during other exposed sections to make them as conspicuous as possible for listeners
  • Feature high-frequency sounds (given that low-frequency sounds are not significantly attenuated by the head) and non-linear movement between earbuds to make inter-ear variations as jarring as possible
  • Prolong and repeat the inter-ear variations to re-assure listeners the spatial movement is intentional and create space for a positive listener appraisal response

Our data indicates that when you feature vocalists whispering or singing with a “breathy” or “airy” voice, this can often induce frisson in listeners. The key to this method is that, in non-musical contexts, these vocalizations are only audible if we are close to the person sounding them. When we whisper, for example, we manipulate our vocal folds and restrict our vocal cords so that the sound does not project. Similarly, we normally cannot hear someone inhaling or exhaling unless we are right next to them. With the help of microphones and headphones, however, intimate singing techniques can create the illusion that a vocalist is in our peri-personal space. This makes whispering and breathiness especially effective for frisson.

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

  • Breathiness in lead vocals or voice-like instruments (e.g. saxophone, which many including the famous opera composer Puccini considered the closest instrument to the human voice)
  • Sudden shifts to breathy voice at the end of long notes, where the beginning parts of the note are sounded in normal voice
  • Sudden whispering in lead vocals

Don’t interpret this to mean that every instance of whispering, for example, will automatically give listeners chills. Our data suggests that when using this technique, it helps to:

  • Place intimate singing techniques at unexpected moments (e.g. opening of a piece, upbeat before a new section, end of a long note) to make them as surprising as possible
  • Pair intimate singing techniques with sparse arrangements, slow tempos, and simple texture to focus listeners on the lead vocals and prevent any non-melodic distractions
  • Repeat and sustain intimate singing techniques to re-assure listeners they are intentional and create space for a positive listener appraisal response

Anecdote: This is a consistent trend in our listener data and is becoming increasingly frequent in pop music (some have labelled the trend “whisper-pop“)

Our data indicates that when you create sounds that exhibit what researchers refer to as crackling noise, this can often induce frisson in listeners. One defining element of these sounds is that they result from an object being subjected to an external force, which creates irregular, noise-producing changes. For example, wood crackling when set on fire, paper rustling when crumpled into a ball, water swishing around when a bottle is rotated, the clicking tktktktktk sound when you flutter your tongue. A second common element of these sounds in chills-inducing passages is that they are quiet. It’s likely this method is effective because it creates the illusion of an unpredictable, and therefore potentially dangerous, sound source in our peri-personal space. The growth of the ASMR movement underscores that crackling noise 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:

  • Crunching or rustling noises the mimic the sound of an object being deformed or broken in irregular unpredictable ways, like crumpling paper or rustling leaves
  • Wet noises that mimic the sound of liquids dripping, swishing, or moving in other irregular, unpredictable ways (SLIME)
  • Clicking or fluttering noises that mimic the sound of colliding in irregular unpredictable ways, like staggered finger tapping on hard surfaces, scissors opening and closing rapidly, or certain spoken sounds (sk, ch, ts, tk, etc.)

Don’t interpret this to mean that any wet or clicking sound effect will automatically give listeners chills. Our data suggests that when using this technique, it helps to:

  • Use crackling noise during sections with no lead melody, or a simple repeated phrase, to focus listeners on the acoustics rather than any harmonic movement
  • Pair crackling noise with quiet sections and reduced textures so that even subtle swells in dynamics and jerks in rhythm are as conspicuous as possible for listeners
  • Prolong or repeat crackling noise effects to re-assure listeners and create space for a positive listener appraisal response

Listen to thousands more example clips in our Frisson Database