Tuesday, September 28th, 2010Writing Engaging Suspense Music
Writing Engaging Suspense Music
Suspense music, intrigue, thriller score or mysterious underscore, are all words to describe pretty much the same thing; music that creates tension. Audiences of suspense productions need to feel uncomfortable, disturbed and at times terrified. How does a composer establish a sound of tension in their compositions? This article will focus on compositional techniques for creating engaging suspense music.
Recently I was given the task of creating a one minute promotional piece for Tokyo Snow Club’s Summer Splash 2010 trip. The brief was to create a thriller/suspense video that centered around a knife scene on a tour bus. The music was to build and swell, underscore a tour guide narration, then abruptly change into a fun and exciting modern sound while the trip’s details were displayed. The video then was to end with the Tokyo Snow Club logo.
The first step was to sum up what suspense music essentially consisted of. After some time spent listening, it was immediately clear that all suspense music has;
1) Crescendos and large percussion hits,
2) Dissonance and the use of minor scales or dark sounding modes,
3) Dark ambient sounds and samples,
4) Tension and release.
So let’s take a close look at each of these four points, as they form the basis of this article.
The Use of Percussion and Dynamics
What is it about crescendos and percussive hits that resonate so well with suspense music? If you take a close listen to any thriller underscore, you will immediately hear the swelling of strings and horns, strange ambient sounds entering and exiting, and a multitude of percussive strikes.
Crescendos and percussive hits help to guide and evoke emotions in audiences. They draw out the time it takes for events to happen in visual productions and can be used to raise concern in audiences when danger is not immediate. This in turn strengthens the time when danger does finally arrive.
Don’t forget that crescendos and percussive hits can also be used to confuse and misguide audiences. Generally underscore music is used to support visuals, but it can be also used to give viewers false information. This is a very commonly used technique to draw out suspense in thriller and horror productions. Audiences are used to believing, or let us saying ‘feeling’ since they may not be completely paying attention to the music, that when a crescendo or percussive strike occurs, that an undesirable event is going to shortly thereafter happen.
Directors and composers take advantage of this technique, and can draw out, and strengthen the final event that the audience is anticipating. Without this kind of musical deception, audiences would be more inclined to predict the timing of events in thriller productions.
Dissonance and Note Choice
It goes without saying that suspense music relies on dissonance and carefully chosen musical scales to convince audiences to feel uncomfortable. The use of minor scales and the exploitation of the augmented fifth can help to quickly set the mood for tense music.
Without delving too deeply into the technical aspects of dissonant chords and modal scales, let’s just say that composers need to experiment with different sounds based on these scales and discover a sound they are personally happy with. It is without a doubt, that melodies based on these scales will naturally cause a feeling of tension, and combined with careful instrument and sound sample choices a composer can effectively create suspenseful music.
Scales such as the aeolian mode, the sixth mode of the major scale which runs from A to A on the piano (only the white keys), and chords with the augmented fifth, are extremely effective for creating tense, suspenseful music. Experiment with different instrumentation playing melodies and harmonies based on the aeolian mode with some additional usage of augmented fifths.
Dark Ambient Sounds
This is an area of composition and sound design that can truly give composers their own unique style. The way that ambient sounds are incorporated into musical compositions is a delicate art and without rules. Listening through mainstream suspense music it is evident however, that some sounds have become ‘industry standards’. The sound of glass bottles slid across the strings of grand pianos, the subtle sounds violins can produce in an orchestra, or the endless world of digitally created and manipulated samples.
The point really is, to find sounds that can effectively fulfill the goal of creating engaging suspense music, whilst also giving composers a sound stamp that can be recognized by directors, fellow composers and in some cases audiences. Simply listening to the huge amount of suspense music available can give plenty of ideas about what to sample.
Production techniques for creating samples is another article in itself, and taking a close look at Spencer Sternberg’s Making Sound Effects article may prove informative in this regard. In summary, time stretching, pitch shifting and careful use of effect processing can lead to amazing ambient sounds.
Tension and Release
Having tension at the beginning of the Summer Splash promotional piece creates a more effective impact when the modern sounding music enters later in the piece. Tension and release is a common compositional device to help lead listeners into feeling the progression of a musical piece. In popular music, it is used in chord progression choice to help distinguish when a section of the music is going to end and be replaced by a new section (such as the use of a pre-chorus before a chorus).
In the Summer Splash promo the release comes with a funky loop to support a list of informative titles.
The tension before the introduction of the modern music is used to build up anticipation in listeners, causing the final information in the promo to have a stronger effect. In suspense music, tension and release is used to build emotion and anticipation in listeners, and from a composers point of view needs to follow the action in the picture. Tension and release can be used continuously, rising and falling, to help accentuate the final arrival of an event.
The Tokyo Snow Club logo completes the end of the promo, so the music changes quickly back to a final suspense sting. This is to keep in the suspense theme of the promo and also support the logo.
Experimentation is the key word when creating suspense music. By basing composition on the ideas of dissonance, scale choice, instrument choice and sample choice, a composer can experiment with a personal style of creating suspense music. Pay attention to the order of events in the visuals and try to misguide audiences at times, to create a stronger effect when final events to arrive.
Take a look at the final version of Tokyo Snow Club’s Summer Splash promo by Spencer Sternberg.
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