How To Keep Your Audience In Suspense Using Music

Posted on May 19 2017   |   Guides

When it comes to film, music plays a key element. Choosing the wrong music, or no music will take away from the emotion you’re trying to portray.

Music is especially crucial when trying to add suspense or tension to a scene. It can make or break it.

This guide will give you tips on how to add suspense using music and how to captivate your audience by doing so.


Intrigue/Tension & Release

You can create tension in a film using many different techniques. One of those techniques is to use crescendos. A crescendo is a piece of music that keeps building and building in loudness and intensity until it reaches its climax.

(Example: The Main Theme from ‘Gravity’ just keeps building in volume and gets more and more intense until the climax)

You could have crescendos building up and leading to loud percussive hits or blood-curdling screams, etc. This method is somewhat predictable and perhaps overused, but tried, tested and often the most successful means to hold your audience in suspense.

(Example: The Freedom Theme from ‘Braveheart’ uses multiple crescendos to build the intensity and importance of the scene)


False Crescendos

A false crescendo is similar to standard crescendos but as you can guess, it’s got a twist. The music builds and builds to unnerve the audience into fully expecting that ‘predictable’ smash at the climax, and then instead it leads to deathly silence.

This is a technique that I used whilst scoring the horror film ‘Splintered’ and the psychological film ‘The Last Showing’.


Dynamics

Using dynamics in your piece of music with have a huge impact on setting the scene.

Dynamics is when a piece of music drops in volume or gets louder. By using dynamics carefully, you can make scenes feel more intense and suspenseful. You can use dynamics to lower the piece during an intense or scary scene then have a burst of music come back up and frighten the audience.

A good example of this is in the scene in ‘Jurassic Park’ where the raptors go after the kids. The use of dynamics here really works with creating suspense and leaves you on edge watching it. Dynamics are great for jump scares.

(Example: Duel of the Fates from ‘Star Wars: The Phantom Menace’ starts with a loud choir and then dips right down. It then creeps back up as the battle intensifies and culminates during the main part of the battle. Later in the piece of music, it drops in dynamics during an important part of the battle, and then shoots back up for the climax).


Characteristics

If you’re writing/using a piece of music in your music, it’s important to consider the sounds and notes used.

If you were scoring a horror film, you should use instruments like strings, synthesisers, organs, theremins, etc. A lot of horror pieces use the minor scale, to give it that creepy and sad sound. To build suspense, you could also alternate between major and minor chords and clashing chords to confuse the audience.

It’s also a good idea to add delay or reverb to add mystery and create an atmosphere.


Continious Rhythmic Pulse

A continuous rhythmic pulse can be adopted for many purposes.

Firstly, to keep the scene or entire film driving along, adding that 4th dimension to the overall experience. Then, and only once the audience has got used to it being there, perhaps they don’t even notice it anymore – take it away, use the silence to unsettle the unsuspecting viewer.

It may take a short time until they realise that something is different, but once they notice it has a big impact. Don’t believe it? A baby or puppy is settled when listening to its mothers’ heartbeat. Take that away and the baby senses that something’s wrong.

This is a powerful and simple technique to put the audience on edge. It can also help drive a scene and pick up the pace by using dynamics.


Dissonance

Dissonance is a combination of inharmonious notes played together. Subtle dissonance is always my preferred route. By alternating between dissonant and consonant sounds, it put the audience on edge and lets them know something creepy is about to happen.

(Example: Main Theme from ‘Planet of the Apes’)

For a dissonant sound, it’s a good idea to have an interval of notes switching between soothing and disturbing to make the audience subconsciously uncomfortable. Try adding some noises like the scraping of metal or laughter/screams, coupled with some echo and reverb to give it that scary vibe.

(Example: The Theme from ‘Alien’ uses a high-pitched sound in the background, mimicking an alien sound and puts the audience on edge and makes them feel slightly uncomfortable. It also features a haunting flute sound and the synth plays clashing notes to create dissonance.

Another trick is to take the main theme or one of the shorter musical motifs of the film and twist it ever so delicately. Adding just one or two unrelated notes that are outside of the harmonic family or referencing an important piece of music can have a huge impact. This will mess with the audience who have heard the normal version and by adding the motif; it lets the audience know it’s an important part of the film.

(Example: Mustafar Theme from ‘Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith’ references the main motif of the Imperial March Theme from the original ‘Star Wars’ trilogy to show the transition from Anakin Skywalker to Darth Vader)


Juxtaposition

Juxtaposition is pairing two opposites together. For example, synch beautiful music with a scene of complete and utter carnage. You’re delving into deeper psychological realms.

Using juxtaposition means that you’re making a point of the extreme opposites of mankind/human nature. An example would be pain being so close to please. Sick and twisted, like the sweet tones of an ice cream van and then showing the happy smiling face of clown sends shivers down many peoples spines.

(Example: During the hostage torture scene in ‘Reservoir Dogs’, the song ‘Stuck in the Middle’ by Stealers Wheel plays)


Desolate / Sound Design

Sound design is the use and manipulation of sounds. You can further the suspense created by a piece of music by simply adding more.

When fitting a piece of music with a film, especially a horror or thriller, a good technique to use is to add sound effects and samples. These samples will add to the sound spectrum and compliment the piece of music, whilst putting the audience on edge.

For example, if you were to add the sound of children singing and added some delay or reverb, this would come across as super creepy and lets the audience know something disturbing is coming up.

(Example: The video game ‘Fall Out’ uses echoing music from the 1920’s to create an eerie, creepy vibe to the post apocalyptic world)


Summary

Less is more. Sometimes, nothing can beat a single, held string note, or a repetitive high piano key.

Music should enhance the already existing emotion.