How the auditory illusion of Shepherd’s tone creates feelings of anxiety and panic

Most of us are familiar with optical illusions. They make our eyes and brain question whether they are seeing things as they really are or creating our own version of what we see.

Likewise, an auditory illusion can trick your brain and ears into believing they are hearing certain things. They are false perceptions of real sounds generated by an external stimulus.

One such auditory illusion is called Shepard’s tone, a sound named after cognitive scientist Roger Shepard, who created it in addition to an optical illusion called Shepard’s Table.

What is Shepard’s Tone?

A Shepard tone, also known as a Shepard scale, is a sound design or set of sine waves that create the illusion of a constant and infinite tone that will rise or fall.

It is achieved by overlapping notes that rise or fall only one octave but vary in volume. As each cliff fades and diminishes, the beginning and end of each become indiscernible and seem to begin to continuously ascend or descend.

Shepard’s tone creates a way to build conflict or heighten tension. In the film, it is meant to create a sense of discomfort or show that trouble is brewing.

This is one of the sound effects that creates foreboding that turns into a haunting effect, building anticipation and anxiety.

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