Shepard tone

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A Shepard tone, named after Roger Shepard, is a sound consisting of a superposition of sine waves separated by octaves. When played with the base pitch of the tone moving upwards or downwards, it is referred to as the Shepard scale. This creates the auditory illusion of a tone that continually ascends or descends in pitch, yet which ultimately seems to get no higher or lower.[1] It has been described as a 'sonic barber's pole'.[2]


Construction of a Shepard scale

The acoustical illusion can be constructed by creating a series of overlapping ascending or descending scales. Similar to the Penrose stairs optical illusion (as in M. C. Escher's lithograph Ascending and Descending) or a barber's pole, the basic concept is shown in Figure 1.

Each square in the figure indicates a tone, any set of squares in vertical alignment together making one Shepard tone. The color of each square indicates the loudness of the note, with purple being the quietest and green the loudest. Overlapping notes that play at the same time are exactly one octave apart, and each scale fades in and fades out so that hearing the beginning or end of any given scale is impossible. As a conceptual example of an ascending Shepard scale, the first tone could be an almost inaudible C(4) (middle C) and a loud C(5) (an octave higher). The next would be a slightly louder C#(4) and a slightly quieter C#(5); the next would be a still louder D(4) and a still quieter D(5). The two frequencies would be equally loud at the middle of the octave (F#), and the eleventh tone would be a loud B(4) and an almost inaudible B(5) with the addition of an almost inaudible B(3). The twelfth tone would then be the same as the first, and the cycle could continue indefinitely. (In other words, each tone consists of ten sine waves with frequencies separated by octaves; the intensity of each is a gaussian function of its separation in semitones from a peak frequency, which in the above example would be B(4).)

The scale as described, with discrete steps between each tone, is known as the discrete Shepard scale. The illusion is more convincing if there is a short time between successive notes (staccato or marcato instead of legato or portamento). As a more concrete example, consider a brass trio consisting of a trumpet, a horn, and a tuba. They all start to play a repeating C scale (C–D–E–F–G–A–B–C) in their respective ranges, i.e. they all start playing Cs, but their notes are all in different octaves. When they reach the G of the scale, the trumpet drops down an octave, but the horn and tuba continue climbing. They're all still playing the same pitch class, but at different octaves. When they reach the B, the horn similarly drops down an octave, but the trumpet and tuba continue to climb, and when they get to what would be the second D of the scale, the tuba drops down to repeat the last seven notes of the scale. So no instrument ever exceeds an octave range, and essentially keeps playing exactly the same seven notes over and over again. But because two of the instruments are always "covering" the one that drops down an octave, it seems that the scale never stops rising.

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