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Humans have long considered sound and music as mystical and magical, whether worshipped by the ancients and embedded in political and culture in ancient China, regarded as a portal to the infinite by Buddhists chanting OM, or modern day musicians and sound designers revelling in and revering their own sound creations. Sound inspires poets and sculptures across the world, leaders, rebels, teachers and students, the “everyday man” both old and young alike. Sound plays major roles in human life, from the first cry of the newborn baby to the final breath and “death rattle” of those passing. For most of us, sound encompasses our entire lives and every breathing moment. At times it is to be rejoiced, other times to be escaped (has anyone else ever asked the room, “Can everyone just be quiet for a minute please I can’t think!). It is argued that pure silence only exists in “space”. Truly, sonic vibrations are as prevalent as particles of light, moving atoms back and forth within this physical plane. There is a concept that unveils this, a belief in a natural structure that exists beyond the human world and is and embedded in the physical structure of the universe itself: the sound matrix.
Hans Jenny: Pioneer in Cymatics
The belief in a sound matrix is the idea that a pre-created and predetermined sound configuration exists innately in the universe, one that can be exposed and studied. Several scholar/scientists have contributed to this field: now known as “cymatics,” a term applied by researcher Hans Jenny (1904-1972). Essentially, he explored a myriad of different distinct patterns created when particles are placed on a plate and vibrated at different frequencies. In other words, cymatics is the study of wave phenomena that created repeatable physical patterns from the frequency sound vibration of particles. His bookCymatics: A Study of Wave Phenomenon and Vibration is the defining work to be discussed further on in this post.
The inspiration for the exploration into cymatics is steeped in “anthroposophy,” a philosophy founded by Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925), which states that human beings can intellectually access and uncover elements of an existing spiritual plane. In fact, Jenny’s own book is “Dedicated to the memory and research of Rudolf Steiner.” Anthroposophists believe that the witness of the spiritual world and its demonstration through experiments in fields such as cymatics will stand the test of rational verification. This foray into sound study is an example of the founding principle of anthroposophy and mimics the methods of the natural sciences in their practices of evidence-based research. Before Jenny, however, there are a few other individuals that paved the way for this exploration into the unseen structures embedded and surrounding us in our universe.
The beginnings of cymatics
Ideas of inherent vibrational patterns in the natural world began centuries ago, with Galileo Galilei often quoted as an early witness to the phenomena from his writings of 1632 in his “Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems.” He explains his experiences when scraping a plate of brass with a chisel, attempting to clean it. Galileo noticed both a high whistling sound and the production of parallel streaks of brass particles that only occurred in tandem with the sound. Fifty years later, scientist and musician Robert Hooke, in 1680, noticed nodal patterns created with vibrating glass. Using a violin bow on a flour covered glass plate, he produced repeated patterns. One would think today, imaging back, that both of these experimenters must have experienced something mystical. They discovered, or uncovered, a structure within the physical world not yet noted by humankind; a matrix that predates history, clearly put in place by a non-human force. No wonder their testimony has withstood the test of time.
One hundred years after Hooke’s observations, one Ernst Florence Friedrich Chladni (1756-1827) published “Entdeckungen über die Theorie des Klanges” translated to English as “Discoveries in the Theory of Sound.” Chladni was inspecting the properties of “Lichtenberg figures.” German physicist Georg Christoph Lichtenberg discovered these radial patterns in in 1777 when placing powdered material on a high-voltage plate. Chladni had the intriguing impetus to run a violin bow along a metal plate holding powder (some say sand), which created vibrations and thus arranged the particles into patterns, creating visibility to the vibrations. It’s a complex phenomenon due to wave behavior with the particles being moved from the “antinode” to the “nodal” lines, but suffice it to day – really cool patterns emerged. “Hmmm … wow, what are these fantastic shapes appearing from sound? From whence do they come?” Chladni may have asked.
A good while later, Hans Jenny whistled his own experimental tune of the 1960s and worked diligently for over a decade to create and study patterns created by vibration in the exact same vein as his predecessors. With the aid of years of technology, his vibrating method was superior to those before him in its accuracy. He used crystal oscillators and tone generators to control the frequency and amplitude of his signals as opposed to the anvil of Galileo and the bow of Chladni. Jenny connected these devices to metal plates and his methods were repeatable, a necessary condition in scientific research. Below is an example of the intricate patterns that Jenny uncovered through his work. This, in particular, is the latticework in liquid, seen in video below
Jenny’s Work and Theory
Jenny published Kymatik (translated Cymatics) in 1967 after, as mentioned, more than 10 years of intense study. When reading through his work, found at through a google search of “hans jenny cymatics pdf,” his adherence to anthroposophy is obvious as he continually attempts to connect the dots between his work and other periodic systems throughout the physical world: “Whenever we look in Nature, animate or inanimate, we see widespread evidence of periodic systems. These systems show a continuously repeated change from one set of conditions to another, opposite set”(Jenny, 17) He mentions human circulation and respiration, the cycles found within the vegetable and animal kingdoms and goes into chemistry as he sets up the argument for cymatics as a structure of the universe predating humankind: that the organization of the sound matrix is prime and found throughout all matter, and recognized throughout his work.
A colleague of his, Jeff Volk, sums up the most poignant of Jenny’s ideas succinctly in his introduction. He writes: that “the principle underlying Cymatics, that of periodicity, is so ubiquitous in nature (and in Nature), that it is found in all manner of phenomena.” Volk further reflects on how Jenny’s discoveries “mirrored biological forms and natural processes, as well as flowers, mandalas and intricate geometric designs … these experiments seemed to reveal the hidden nature of creation, to lay bare the very principle through which matter coalesces into form.” Volk The most striking of Volk’s points is that Jenny’s shapes were the result of “audible vibration.” In other words, cymatics allows us to see sound.
By carefully controlling the frequencies he generated and the area size of the metal plates, Jenny could compare various substances such as sand, fluids, and powders at different frequencies and in different areas. The vibrations had a large range which resulted in a large array of various geometric shapes. From these he noted three fundamental principles of vibration and wave motion. One pole exhibits patterns and figures which is visible. The other pole demonstrates kinetic processes (plate vibrations) which is audible. Third, the entire process is periodic, which Jenny terms “essential periodicity.” The concept of essential periodicity is significant in understanding Jenny’s mission: “essential” refers to patterns that are of the essence of the physical world, and periodicity clearly that periodic cycles are also embedded in the physical plane.
Jenny explores a wide array of different frequencies on different media resulting in a striking variety of visible patterns: square metal plates of various sizes, triangular plates with crystals attached to their underside, The images in this video begin at 2:07
Featured moments in the above video Cymatics – Bringing Matter To Life With Sound
2:27 – triangular plate
2:34 – higher note creates a more complicated figure
3:26 – different materials exhibit different behaviors
4:49 – rotary effect
5:30 – figures throb and sway
6:30 – liquid latticework
6:39 – skeletal
6:55 – animal like structure
The moments above and others through the video are reminiscent of other living and non-living beings and figures found in nature, clearly. I will end this post with Jenny’s own words which I’ve transcribed from the video above and shed further light and is purpose and vision on the primacy of sound:
You will see many things that answer many questions. You will see living forms, living amoeba, almost animal-like creatures, you will see continents being formed, the earth itself coming into existence, explosions, eruptions, atomic explosions and bombs, you can see all this and watch it before your eyes. But everything owes its existence solely and completely to sound. Sound is a factor which holds it together. Sound is the basis of form and shape. In the beginning was the word and the word was God. We are told this is how the world began and how creation took shape.~ Hans Jenny
The prior post concerned the three major modes which are designated by their major 5ths. The minor modes are similarly designated by their minor 5ths. Each has a unique history and flavor, but they share the familiar minor darkness of emotion in common. From the bittersweetness of the Dorian, the tense power of the Phrygian, to the floating lunacy of the Locrian, they all hold a distinct place as one of our seven modern modes.
Mode II: Dorian
The first minor mode is the second of seven modes (three major and 4 minor) – named Dorian. In C major the sequence of notes begins on D: D, E, F, G, A, B, C, D. It’s intervals are very similar to the natural minor scale (known as the Aeolian), but it has a raised 6th note. This raised 6th is the peculiarity of the Dorian mode that gives it a special feel, wistful but not tragic, due to the brighter interval from the raised 6th. The sequence of steps is W, H, W, W, W, H, W (with W being whole-step and H being half-step) laid out in a symmetrical manner with the three wholetones in the middle bordered by halftones and ending on each with a whole tone.
The Dorian scale derives its name from the Dorian Greeks, who are mentioned in Homer’s Odyssey as living on the island of Crete. It was a scale during the Greek period and one of the church modes of the Middle Ages, as well as existing in a current modern form. Russian composer Mily Balakirev (1837-1910) gave prominence to the Dorian mode when studying the structure of folk songs and dubbed the mode the “Russian minor.” Tracks of recent era seem to have a dark but hopeful sense to them, sad but not crushingly desolate. To me, at least, these songs share a common sound and I suppose it’s because they all employ the Dorian mode: “Scarborough Fair” by Simon and Garfunkel, “Eleanor Rigby” by the Beatles, “Purple Haze” by Jimi Hendrix, “Evil Ways” by Santana, and “Who Will Save Your Soul” by Jewel. If your in the mood to compose something in this vein, play around with the Dorian mode.
Mode III: Phrygian
Phrygian, the second minor mode, is the third of the seven modes. In C major the sequence of the notes begins on E: E, F, G, A, B, C, D, E. Like the Dorian mode, the Phrygian is nearly identical to the Aeolian, but with a flat 2nd, giving the interval a dark and tense feel. This note sequence is especially tasty for metal tracks as with “Wherever I May Roam” by Metallica. This flat 2nd gives the Phrygian it’s unique characteristics, unexpected by most modern listeners accustomed to the normal whole step from the first to the second notes in both the normal major and minor scales (Ionian and Aeolian), giving an impending negative mood.
Interestingly, it has the same notes as F minor, a common key in horror scores. The sequence of steps is H, W, W, W, H, W, W, and its sequence gives mysterious sounding mode and also coined the “Gypsy mode.” The notes constitute an E minor chord OR an E major, which with a C major scale played on top is reminiscent of “Spanish Music” as guitarist John Heussenstamm demonstrates:
The Phrygian mode is named after the ancient kingdom of Phrygia in Greece. Its music contributed to Greek musical traditions through Greek colonies and the mode is associated with combat and war. In fact, according to scholars the ethnic name Phrygian describes the wild and passionate people of the mountainous regions in Anatolia. It would make sense then, that the music derived from this mode does not fit neatly into the traditionally common Western Ionic/Aeolian box, being of the strange and the wild. Also, it’s not surprising that it lends itself to heavy metal with it’s wildness and power.
Mode VI: Aeolian
The Aeolian is the third minor mode, the sixth of the seven modes. Its series of pitches corresponds to the natural minor scale in Western music. In 1547, music scholar Henricus Glareanus first named and described the Aeolian in his treatise on music Dodecachordon. He added to the eight church modes that had dominated for 600 years to include newer major and minor modes and the Aeolian was one of the four (the others being Hypoaeolian, Ionian, and the Hypionian). The Aeolian used A as its tonic and matches the current minor of C major: A, B, C, D, E, F, G, A with flats on the 3rd, 6th, and 7th. As with the other modes, Aeolian was named after an ancient Greek ethnicity – the inhabitants of Aeolis on the Aeolian Islands.
The sound and feel of the Aeolian mode, ie the minor scale, is commonly known even among non-musicians. It quite simply is the opposite of the major scale. While the major scale, the Ionian, is bright, happy, cherry and optimistic, the Aeolian is dark, sad, foreboding, and heavy. Often songwriters will move from a major scale to its minor counterpart during a transition or bridge. Again, it is striking that simply by rearranging the exact same notes from Ionian to Aeolian one can create an incredibly different sound and feel. REM’s “Losing My Religion” is in Aeolian, the natural minor:
Mode VII: Locrian
The fourth minor mode is the Locrian, the final of the entire seven modes. The triad based on its tonic is a diminished chord and is dissonant from B to F and termed a “tritone” – an interval of three whole tones. B is the tonic with the intervals H, W, W, H, W, W, W and the notes B, C, D, E, F, G, A, B. While Glareanus in 1547 happily added Aeolian to the canon of acceptable modes, the Locrian was left out, as it attempts to resolve on the B and creates the dissonant tritone. The mode is named after the Greek regions of Locris. Yet while the name Locrian harkens back to this era, it is rarely used and finding examples of its use difficult.
The dissonant tritone was not accepted into music for centuries as it fell under the label “diabolus in musica,” meaning the devil in the music. The tritone, and hence the Locrian, was forbidden until the Baroque era when it was used within limit. The sound of the Locrian can be sinister and unsettling as it is used over half-diminished chords and has the same pitches as B-flat Aeolian and D-flat Ionian. It uses notes and combinations of notes not in the norm of western music and tends to be avoided unless perhaps one wants something very horrific and disturbing. Some musicians, heavy metal of course, do use the mode as a scale to build riffs such as in “Sandman” by Metallica as noted by Christopher Smith on “What are some of pieces that use the Locrian mode” on quora.com.
Smith goes on to explain that, as stated, the Locrian mode doesn’t sit well with Western ears, but that it is used frequently in the music of South Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa. He mentions that some Egyptian and Persian melodies in the folk tradition adhere to the Locrian mode. He writes further that three techniques have been used to solve the resolution problem with the chord cadence in the Locrian. 1. Just end on an octave note, not a final chord. 2. Use a minor chord to end instead of the diminished, but only in the final chord. 3. End on a flat 6th chord which suits as an ending yet leaves the piece feeling not quite resolved. In Western music though, it can be used to rock as with this demo of “In Your Words” by Lamb of God.
Because of this open-ended and unappealing feel of the Locrian mode, it has been called a “theoretical mode.” In other words, it exists in theory just as fine and dandy as the other modes, but in practice it is not widely used. It comes down to theory. In this case since the Locrian does not have a perfect 5th it sounds basically terrible and is unable to resolve if one intends to adhere to it perfectly, which essentially no one does. The mode is reminiscent of the Lydian major mode in that it floats rather than grounds itself. And, perfectly, Bjork, who uses the Lydian mode a bit in “Possibly Maybe,” also uses the Locrian in “Army of Me” briefly in the bassline. This makes sense of course as Bjork is the quintessential experimenter.
What is striking about these modes and their unique characters and the emotions that they elicit is this: they point to a pre-existing structure and pull us toward obeying that structure. A perfect fifth is a necessity, at least in Western music, or it sounds dissonant. Why? As with Hans Jenny’s work discussed in another blog post here on Cymatics, there is evidence of pre-existing order that humans are tapping into. To me, it’s the same question I ask regarding math. Did we invent math or did we discover it? Did we invent music or did we discover it?
Music Modes Chart and Circle of Fifths by Endorpheus
Musical modes are variations of musical scales by moving the tonic (the root note) up or down a number of degrees and beginning the scale from that new starting point, while retaining the same notes of the scale. As with everything human made or discovered, the modern modes have a long history behind them. The concept began in ancient Greece and underwent stages in which they grew from 4 modes to 12 over the centuries. Early Christian, Jewish and Eastern cultures contributed to what became known as the “church modes of the Middle Ages” in Europe. Today, the modes retain their original Greek names: the Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, Locrian.
These seven modes can be transposed onto our current twelve note system to create all twelve keys. Various modes are used throughout all musical styles, heavily for example in jazz, but by musicians of all other genres as well. Each mode within each key creates a different emotional feel elicited from the listener due to the various intervals played. There is agreement that certain abstract concepts and emotions such as “triumphant,” “somber,” and “exotic” can be attributed specifically to certain modes. Each one has its own character. When combining each mode to each key we have a plethora of possible variations with which to approach music composition and improvisation.
Music makes the mood/mode
The idea that modes produce emotions is ancient and goes even further: that exposure to certain modes influences behavior. The great Plato himself believed that soldiers should only listen to Dorian Phrygian modes which elicit strong powerful vibes, but not Lydian or Ionian as they to feel more dreamlike, innocent – not qualities wanted in warfare. Like the ancient Chinese concept of a people’s music representing the behavior of the people themselves, Plato felt that music can also go the other way and influence the behavior of people. Aristotle, in Politics, writes that the essential differences between the modes create a different effect on all those who listen, “Some of them make men sad and grave .. enfeeble the mind … produce a moderate or settled temper” or “enthusiasm” as in the Phrygian mode.
Major and minor modes and the intervals between
The most striking difference between the 7 modes are the 3rd interval, which determines whether a mode in question has a minor or major feel to it. This is the interval between the root note of the scale and the third note. If it is a major third (whole step between the 2nd and 3rd note) and then the mode is major. If it is a minor third (half step between the 2nd and 3rd notes) then the mode is minor.
The there major modes are Ionian, Lydian and Mixolydian. Because, for example, in C Major the 3rd between C and E in Ionian is major, the third between F and A is major in Lydian, and in Mixolydian as well the third between G and B is major. On the other hand, the four minor modes are Dorian, Phrygian, Aeolian, and Locrian. The post will cover the history, characteristics and emotions associated with the major modes only. Importantly, most might agree that it is the key, not necessarily the mode, that determines the emotional feel of a piece of music. That said, musicians employ a wide variety of modes across all keys to capture their emotional intent and messages
Mode I: Ionian
The first mode is the Ionian. It is basically the modern major scale that most of us know: doh re mi fa so la ti.” The sequence of steps is W, W, H, W, W, W, H (with W being whole-step and H being half-step). The Ionian mode was singled out to be named in 1547 by Henricus Glareanus, a Swiss humanist in his work, “Dodecachordon,” a treatise on music that expanded the contemporary eight mode church musical system. Major and minor modes of the time were increasing in significance and Glareanus saw a need to incorporate them into the current agreed upon church modes, therefore naming the major mode Ionian and also adding Aeolian which, by the way, is the current modern minor mode to be discussed in another post.
Ionian in the key of C nearly universally the first scale that children and future musicians are taught. It is generally thought of as happy, bright, innocent, reassuring, cheery, joyous and absolutely “major.” When played at a slower tempo it can sound royal and majestic – add a little tempo and we have triumphant.
Examples of C major songs range from childhood tunes such as “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” to timeless masterpieces such as John Lennon’s “Imagine.” Only John Lennon with his genius could turn C Major bittersweet, but there it is folks. I often think C major gets a bad rap from music snoots – Lennon made it work, it’s not just Twinkle Twinkle territory:
Varying the key will impact the feel, however the “positive” aspect of the emotions the music elicits remains firmly in the major. For example the track “It’s a Beautiful Day” by U2 is in D major (D Ionian).
Mode IV: Lydian mode
The second major mode, the fourth mode of the entire seven, is the Lydian mode, named after the ancient Kingdom of Lydia in Anatolia. It is the major scale with a raised fourth note (compared to the major scale), which as explained below gives it an entirely new sense of movement. The sequence of the steps is W, W, W, H, W, W, H and is the fifth of the original church modes though is not a commonly used one because of its character. Here, listen:
In “The Lydian Scale: Seeking the Ultimate Mysteries of Music,” Andrew Bishko does a fine job of uncovering the mysterious nature of the Lydian scale. He goes far in his explanation, but in sum, the entire reason for the dreamlike character of the Lydian scale is the augmented fourth degree (note). Compared to the major scale, it is raised by a half step. This small change violates what music theorist George Russell coined “tonal gravity,” the tendency for a feeling of openness to occur in the direction of the root to the fifth and a closing, and ending feeling, from the fifth to the root – a common musical resolution. Basically, an attempt to resolve the Lydian scale is difficult, as they augmented 4th creates a situation of little tension so there’s nothing to resolve. This creates a dreamy, floating feeling.
As Bishko writes, “Musically, it is quite literally going nowhere.” Interestingly, Bishko states that Russell has a term of musically going nowhere – horizontal.
Mode V: Mixolydian mode
The final major scale here, the Mixolydian scale, is a major scale played with the fifth note as the root (or tonic). So, C major played from G is the G Mixolydian with the notes G, A, B, C, D, E, and F. While the Lydian differs from the Ionian (major) scale by only an augmented 4th, the Mixolydian differs with the Ionian only by a flat 7th. The sequence of the steps is W, W, H, W, W, H, W and often used in jazz improvisation, its special character derives from the major thirds and the minor sevenths. While its name was given by the Greeks as with all modes, and it was the seventh of the eight medieval church modes, the modern Mixolydian differs.
Mixolydian can be considered the “cool” one of the major modes, used extensively in jazz, the blues, and rock. The Mixolydian mode feels neither major nor minor and instead is known to give an exotic feel and to me – bittersweet. It has a seriousness, but also a sweetness to it, used by Bob Dylan in “Lay Lady Lay,” “Hey Jude” by the Beatles, and “All Apologies” by Nirvana. This mode can also rock. Songs such as “Sweet Child O’Mine” by Guns and Roses, “Sweet Home Alabama” by Lynyrd Skynyrd, and interestingly Lorde’s track “Royals” all employ the mixolydian mode. Phil Whitmer in “Here’s the Music Theory Behind Why Lorde’s Songwriting Is Objectively Kickass” on www.noisy.vice.com notes that “Sweet Home Alabama” and “Royals” ‘in fact not only use the same mode but in fact the same main chord progression D-C-G. Whitmer’s post is an excellent read that sheds light on the vibe and purpose of the Mixolydian mode: well-written, witty, informative.
Next up: the minor modes. And I must end by saying how odd it is that simply by switching the root of the exact same notes we can so drastically shift the emotions a set of those exact same notes bring.
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