Shepard Tone -The Illusion of Music That Keeps Rising and Going Nowhere

low angle photo of staircase

You Can Lose Yourself Until Waiting to the End – Shepard Tone

While listening to this tone, you can lose yourself until waiting for the end.

Sometimes we have seen illusionists (also known as magicians) on TV or in circuses.

Their job is to make things that don’t really exist appear as if they are happening, and the word illusionist means someone who makes deceptive visions.

Illusionism does not only exist in magic shows, it exists in many other places; one of them is MUSIC.

I’m going to talk about an old but still used — and even preferred — musical illusion; SHEPARD TONE.

In this illusion, the song flows and flows as if it is constantly rising, but musically it stays where it is, that is to say, “It is constantly rising and going nowhere”.

Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dvSD1EAlAUQ

You will easily understand the Shepard Tone in the video below. It’s like the music keeps going up and up and up and up and on and on but it doesn’t go anywhere, it doesn’t end. And that keeps you with the music all the time.

As you listen, the music goes on and on, but it uses only one piano and the same notes. So how does this happen?

The answer is very simple: The octave difference. An octave is the division of a note up to the thin sound obtained by thinning it by 7 notes. 

For example; the 8-note sequence from Thick C to Thin C (do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-si-do) is considered an octave (In short, the range of sound is important for the octave, not the note).

As you can see in the video, when the notes are pressed in order, they continue with a difference of about an octave.

This results in a continuously rising sound. We can liken this to the “Barbarian’s pole” below, the shape found in front of barbershops in foreign countries.

Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barber%27s_pole#/media/File:Barber-pole-01.gif

If the notes are pressed in reverse order instead of ascending, a continuous descending sound is heard.

The octave difference creates this illusion because the high octave becomes less and less audible as the notes progress, while the middle octave remains the same and the lower octave becomes more and more audible.

Thus, when going from the high octave to the low octave, the high, middle and low octave sound is heard predominantly, respectively, and then if it continues with the high, middle and low octave again in this order, it continues like a sound rising forever.

The reason why it is perceived this way is that the brain perceives things that are constantly rising or vice versa descending and perceives them as if they are constantly happening.

The falling octave cannot be followed by the brain, it thinks that it is following the one with a higher octave, which is by definition an “Illusion”, which occurs when the brain follows the wrong order. Here is an example,

In the endless staircase section of Super Mario 64, SHEPARD TONE was used to match the scene. In the video, SHEPARD TONE is one of the best examples of how the illusion is realized.

A continuously rising sound is obtained by using two different octaves (blue and orange). As can be seen, continuously rising music is obtained by switching from low octave too high octave (the notes indicated in orange replace the blues).

Here, in fact, the sound ups and downs made by the notes are not linear (straight), but a kind of helical structure is used as in the picture on the side and creates the “MUSIC ILLUSION THAT CONTINUALLY RISES AND GOES NOWHERE”

Here the brain is constantly following the loudest sound and creating an environment that is constantly rising and the illusion is created. So what does it mean to use this in music? Using this kind of music creates continuity.

It creates a desire to reach the point where the music ends and makes you want to follow and connect. Pink Floyd used this. Maybe that’s why their songs are so popular. Actually many people have used the Shepard Tone illusion.

One of them is Hans Zimmer. He used the Shepard Tone differently in the soundtrack. 

It’s an incredible idea because the music will constantly push the movie forward, it will increase the attachment to the movie, to the plot, and to the characters.

Hans Zimmer’s composition with Shepard Tone is called “The Mole” (from the movie Dunkirk (2017)). 

At the beginning of the song, there is the ticking of the clock and sounds similar to the wind howling, but from 2:25 onwards, the part that creates this effect continues almost unchanged until 3:25 and lasts exactly 60 seconds, and after that, the song continues for 20 seconds, 20 seconds intervals with small changes, using the Shepard Tone illusion.

The fact that it lasts exactly 60 seconds is both Hans Zimmer’s and Christopher Nolan’s (Director and Screenwriter) interest in “time”.

Especially in the soundtracks of the films they worked on together, “INTERSTELLAR” starring Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain and Michael Caine and “INCEPTION” starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Marion Cotillar and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, both Oscar nominees for Best Music, there are hidden sections about time.

If the question of how to hide time in music is in mind, “The Mole” gives a good answer.

The sound at the beginning of the soundtrack, starting at 4.10, is a recording of the ticking of a wristwatch. 

This helps Shepard Tone to show how important time is in the movie and how it will keep you on edge as the movie progresses.


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