The Shepard Tone is an amazing auditory illusion. Play the video below to hear what it sounds like.
You must have heard the Shepard Tone before. It is used extensively in modern Hollywood thrillers to create the illusion of continuously rising tension. This video essay brilliantly explains how film-maker Christopher Nolan uses Shepard tones.
The Shepard Tone corresponds to a narrative pattern that we can find in other domains. In a recent essay (which is worth reading for other reasons), Matt Taibi writes:
The media in the last four years has devolved into a succession of moral manias. We are told the Most Important Thing Ever is happening for days or weeks at a time, until subjects are abruptly dropped and forgotten, but the tone of warlike emergency remains: from James Comey’s firing, to the deification of Robert Mueller, to the Brett Kavanaugh nomination, to the democracy-imperiling threat to intelligence “whistleblowers,” all those interminable months of Ukrainegate hearings (while Covid-19 advanced), to fury at the death wish of lockdown violators, to the sudden reversal on that same issue, etc.
Is this not the Shepard Tone of journalism? Stories are picked up, raised intensity and then dropped abruptly. But before they are dropped, another story has been picked up and is being raised in intensity.
This is also a technique that Buddhasvamin uses in the Brihat-katha-shloka-samgraha. In this ancient Indian epic poem, the author uses frame stories to create a Shepard Tone of sorts. Stories aren’t always resolved completely, they are just dropped with a single line resolution and another story is picked up.