Lesson #403: Shepard Tones

I finally got around to watching¬†Dunkirk today. It’s stressful. But it’s beautifully made, and there was a variation on Elgar’s ‘Nimrod‘.* Which mostly drove me crazy by pretending to be Nimrod, very slowly, for a bar or two, without ever becoming Nimrod. In looking it up later, I learned that it wasn’t actually Nimrod, which mostly exonerated it.**

Anyway, one of the way that your blood pressure gets ratcheted up in this film is the Shepard tone. Identified by cognitive scientist Roger Shepard, the Shepard tone is an auditory illusion that gives the listener the sense of a perpetually rising tone without ever actually rising. Using overlapping tones, as the scale rises the top end fades out and allows the bottom tone to pick back up very quietly as the other pitches continue to rise. It’s sort of like a round of, say, Frere Jacques, where after you’ve finished the line “ding dang dong”, you pick back up at the top of the round with “Frere Jacques” while your friend moves into the “ding dang dong” line. While this is happening, you’re quieter in the initial “Frere Jacques” and the ultimate “ding dang dong” lines, and louder in the middle “dormez-vous” and “sonnez les matines” lines. The Shepard tone is a more uniform and linear version of this idea that tricks your brain into thinking it’s continually climbing. The effect of that is a sense of mounting tension, and Dunkirk‘s composer, Hans Zimmer, uses this masterfully. You can hear it (and the snippets of Elgar) in this piece.

To hear what a Shepard tone sounds like in isolation, listen here.

For more on the theory of the Shepard tone from some BBC scientist types, see here.


*We’ve previously discussed this very piece of music.

**It is, however, a brilliant choice of music for people familiar with the wave of Elgar’s (posthumous — he died in 1934) popularity in England at the time.


Lesson #402: Combinations Locks in the Arab World

Hello, all five of you who are still subscribed to this blog! Glad you’re still here.

I’m at a bit of an intellectual standstill, so I’ve decided to return to this endeavour for 2018.¬†Here’s a quick bite to tide you over until the new year — unless I decide to post again between now and then, in which case, you know, lucky you!

Every now and again, something will pop into my head for absolutely no reason, and it’ll be completely absurd and serve very little intellectual purpose. Not even as a question on Jeopardy!. This is one of those times.

Imagine this: it’s 11:30 pm on a weeknight. I’m getting ready to head in the direction of bed. And then this pops into my head: do combination locks in the Arab world use dial faces with the Hindi numerals on them? Do not ask me why I suddenly needed to know this at 11:30 on a weeknight. I’m as baffled by it as you are.

Now, to understand this question, it’s first important to clarify something you may not know. The numbers we use in Indo-European language (0, 1, 2, etc.) are Arabic numerals. The numbers used in Arabic are Hindi numerals. Answering this question should have been easy, but because of the subtleties of language, it was not. The internet was exactly zero help.

So I did the obvious thing and, at midnight, turned to a friend who spent years living in Jordan. We went back and forth about this for a little while. She wasn’t sure she’d ever seen a combination lock while in country. But in Jordan, they mostly use Arabic numerals in writing and signage, so she suggested it was likely that even if Master and similar companies do make locks with different dials, they wouldn’t be available in Jordan. But, she continued, Saudi Arabia is very strict in its usage of Hindi numerals. Obviously, the next person to ask was my Saudi friend. His response didn’t come in until the next morning because, seriously, who sends texts about lock dials at 12:30 in the morning?

In Arabic countries (and, by logical extension probably all other countries that do not use Arabic numerals), combination locks use the standard dial with Arabic numerals. Though this is as academically unreliable an answer as I’ve ever posted, it’s the best I can do with the failure of the internet to help in literally any way.

But now you know. For the zero times it will ever come up again.