The Shepherd’s Tone

Recently the movie Dunkirk came out in theaters and there is a continual feeling of suspense that seems to take place in the movie. This is because of a very peculiar musical technique called a “Shepard’s tone.” While I have yet to see the movie, I came across a video explaining this intriguing phenomenon, and was immediately impressed with the Spiritual parallel.

Original image from wikipedia


While the musical illusion is called a Shepard tone, in this case we will play it off as the Shepherd’s tone. In John 10:27 Jesus provides us with this powerful imagery that pierced right to the heart of His first-century followers,

My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me.

If you have ever studied sheep and shepherds you will see that they will only listen to the tone of their shepherd. So when two flocks come close to each other, or they are in a remote area, they will go the way of their shepherd’s tone.

You can find videos of this on YouTube, and Dr. Lynn Anderson gives a great example in his book They Smell Like Sheep.

In the movie Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan and Hanz Zimmer create an environment of constant tension by utilizing the Shepard tone to continually draw the movie-goer forward in the story.


What is a Shepard Tone?

The Shepard tone is named after Roger Shepard and is an auditory illusion that seems to continually ascend or descend. In this instance I am approaching it from the “continual ascension” viewpoint.

Several tones are separated by an octave, and are layered on top of each other. The highest pitched tone gets quieter as it ascends the scale; the middle pitch remains loud as it ascends the scale; and the lowest pitched tone starts quiet and gets louder as it ascends.

When they are layered together and looped, it seems like a continually ascending scale.

Watch the video at the end for an even better explanation and example.


The Spiritual Semiotic

The High Tones – You can’t live on the mountaintop forever. Those high tones of your life will be louder and softer at varying times in your life. But whether they are in crescendo or diminuendo, they are always drawing you forward up the scale. The Shepherd is always drawing you forward in His story.


The Low Tones – The same goes for your low tones, or the difficult times in your life. They won’t last forever either, there will be times when they are more intense than others, but overall they will rise and fade with the seasons of life. No matter their audibility, the low tones help to shape us and mold us into Christ’s image.


The Mid Tone – In the Shepard’s tone, the mids are the constant. They stay the loudest and the most pronounced. This is the Shepherd’s tone for His followers. It is the constant variable in the walk of the believer. You can hear his voice, and follow. It continually draws you forward and up the scale regardless of the audibility of the high tones or low tones.


This audible illusion is a perfect representation of what Dr. Stephen Covey refers to as living your life in crescendo, because your most important work and contributions are ahead of you.

This continual move forward is the embodiment of the flowing and living water Jesus told us would flow from within, if you believed in Him (John 7:38). Stagnant water only breeds death and disease, but living water is flowing and moving. The sound of a flowing river is music when you stand in nature, it is a Shepherd tone moving forward, and bringing life.


So, whether you are hearing the high tones, or the low tones more predominately at this instance in your life, you are always moving up the scale. You are always moving forward, because the constant tone is the Shepherd’s tone.

We are always living in the tension of the Spirit. We are always battling against the enemy (principalities and powers of darkness, Eph. 6:12). The Shepherd’s tone draws us forward to life and resurrection.

Are you living in a Shepard-Risset Glissando, the continual ascension towards Christ?

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