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.

Listen to examples below 

Technique #1: Non-linear crescendos

The first Proximity technique involves accelerating increases in loudness (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). In chills-inducing passages, the most reliable ways we see artists pull this off are:

  • Rapid swells with constant pitch: where an artist features rapid, non-linear increase in volume lasting <1 sec, typically paired with overdubbed vocals or white noise risers 
  • Added timbres, constant volume: where rather than increasing the volume of one timbre, an artist instead layers many timbres on top of each other during a quick build lasting 2-4 seconds, typically featured in the lead-up to a climax or resolution moment when listeners are distracted by the harmonic progression (making the increase in loudness more jarring)
  • Certain impulse timbres : where an artist features certain percussive timbres that are conducive to rapid, non-linear increases in loudness that quickly fill in upper and lower frequencies, especially rolls on suspended cymbals, gongs, and tam-tams 

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. 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 this technique.

Listen to examples below 

Technique #2: Non-linear “brightness”

The second Proximity technique involves accelerating increases in “brightness” (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.

Listen to examples below 

Technique #3: Whispering and breathiness

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.

Listen to examples below 

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.

Listen to examples below 

Technique #5: ASMR sounds

The fifth Proximity technique involves sounds that trigger a sensation called autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR). In chills-inducing passages, the most reliable ways we see artists pull this off are:

  • Crackling noise: when an artist abruptly introduces a sound that mimics the acoustics produced when a solid object changes states, for example wood crackling in a fire, crumpling a piece of paper into a ball, rustling a pile of dry leaves, or rapidly popping bubble wrap
  • Certain wet sounds: when an artist abruptly introduces a sound that mimics the acoustics produced when a liquid changes states, for example rain falling onto a textured surface, a carbonated drink being poured into a glass and bubbling, water evaporating into steam, or water sloshing in a container 
  • Quiet clicking or fluttering sounds: when an artist abruptly introduces the sound of certain objects making contact with each other that, in real life, would be difficult to hear without being close to the ojbects, for example fingers tapping a typewriter, scissors opening and closing rapidly, or spoken sounds where the tongue hits the top of the 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 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: 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 Reported 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
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 - 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 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 - 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
See You 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
Scotty Mcreery
Childish Gambino
Madeon
Ludovico Einaudi
Hans Zimmer
Disasterpeace
Youth Lagoon

Frisson Moment Reported by Listeners

0:48-0:52
0:44-0:47
0:02-0:05
2:16-2:18
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
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