It's easy to notice a baby crying on an airplane or the sound of an ambulance going by, but how come? Why are we so good at picking out these high pitches, and what does that mean for sound design in video games and films?
Being able to hear our young cry has allowed humans to survive this long. Screams also tend to be higher-pitched, which is another clear signal that we may be in danger. Manmade sounds that are meant to alert us, such as an alarm or analog timer going off, are high-pitched for this very reason. We can use this psychological phenomenon to our advantage when creating and choosing the right sounds for the story we're telling. Here's how:
We Can Make a Player or Viewer Tense at the Right Time
Most of us have heard screeching violins be used to scare us, especially in the horror genre. They're present in Psycho's famous shower scene and in a lot of Dead Space's score. Hearing these violins makes us tense because they're played dissonantly and grab our attention. It's hard for us to tune out an eerie high frequencies like this, which puts us on edge.
You may have heard of the "Tinnitus Trope" in film, which is another example of using a high pitch to bother us. It's a high-pitched ring that increases in intensity until it suddenly stops. We can recreate a sound like this by recording the ding of a finger cymbal, then reverse it and slightly fade out the tail of the clip.
We Can Direct a Player or Viewer's Attention
We are better at picking out the direction that a high pitch is coming from than a low pitch. This is great news in the mixing phase of a project, where we can use panning and spatialization to place a sound in a specific spot (or on a particular speaker). For example, if an enemy with a high-pitched hum is coming for the player, we can hint where they are.
We can also control how much space this high-pitched sound takes up in our mix by controlling its width. An alarm can sound like it's playing throughout a building, or like it's a ringtone on a tiny phone in the corner of a room. This can make our player aware that this alarm is going off and communicate how big of a threat it is.
We Can Use High Frequencies Wisely and Sparingly
High frequencies do have a downside: they cause ear fatigue if they repeat enough. They can also become grating to listen to eventually. This is why we want to use high-pitched sounds selectively and reserve them for brief, important moments. For instance, The Cleric Beast in Bloodborne only screeches intermittently, not throughout the boss fight.
Communicate with your Sound Designer about what emotional impact you want certain characters, dangers, and events to have on your audience. These high-pitched sounds need to stand out to be effective, so other sounds can be designed at different frequencies to create enough space for all of them in the mix.
A key understanding of psychology makes us better storytellers. Applying the psychoacoustic phenomenon of noticing high frequencies easily to your game lets you predict how your players will interact with it. If you want to increase emotional impact and game feel of your title using psychology and sound, contact me.