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  • Shrishti Basu

Shepard’s Illusions

The Shepard tone is an audio illusion that gives the impression of constantly rising and falling. This effect is achieved by playing notes that are only an octave apart. This results in a Shepard Scale in which each scale continuously fades in and out, making it impossible to distinguish between the beginning and end of any scale. As a result, the impact of rising and falling is infinite. This audio illusion is frequently used in the film industry to create a sense of suspense or mystery. It's not immediately obvious, but that's the beauty of it—this illusion works almost subliminally. You may have felt more excited, tense, or curious as a result of this illusion, but you may not have noticed the presence of this audio because sounds are frequently overshadowed by visuals.


This has been used extensively by directors such as Chris Nolan and music producers such as Hans Zimmer both of which amply use the audio tape to create a tense atmosphere and a feeling of curiosity in the audience. Some of the songs in which this audio tape has been used include “The Mole”, “Mountains”, “Tick Tock”, “Super Mario 64”, “Echoes” and “Colorado Springs” among others. These songs have been displayed in famous movies such as Dunkirk, Sherlock Holmes, Interstellar, The Prestige, etc.

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The Shepard's Tone is named after Roger Shepard, a cognitive scientist. He is regarded as the father of spatial relations research, having written the 'Universal law of Generalization' (1987). Apart from the audio illusion of Shepard's tone, he also created the Shepard Table, a very common visual illusion.

The Shepard's table displays images of two tables, one of which appears longer and thinner than the other despite being identical. The receding edges of the tables appear to be stretched in-depth, and due to the size-constancy phenomenon, objects can appear wider when viewed from a distance. This is evident in Shepard's tables, where the oblique edges appear to grow further apart with distance.


Therefore, Roger Shepard created a mystic effect with his audio and visual illusions. It’s funny how our senses can be deceived so easily, isn’t it?


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