Tension-Filled Hits – Using Musical Sound Design to Write Suspenseful Music

SoundSavant - Tension-Filled Hits

I’ve talked previously about writing “suspenseful music“.  I want to revisit this idea because it’s not an easy thing to pull off and I have another example I’d like to share with you.

One of the biggest problems I have when writing suspenseful music is trying not to sound too cliched.

Things like dissonant chord progressions or the “Psycho” strings work great at building suspense but, in my opinion, they are way over-used.  We hear that stuff every night on network TV.

I want my music to stand out from everything else so I like to use other techniques to build tension and suspense.  One of the best ways I’ve found to achieve this is through incorporating elements of Sound Design into my music.

Take a listen to this short piece I wrote titled, “Tension-Filled Hits”:

Sound Design As Music

This piece is a good example of what I call “Musical Sound Design”.  What I mean is that, as a whole, this is a piece of music, but within it there are elements that are much more sound design in nature than musical.  The two obvious examples being the metallic hits and the automation of the reverb on the piano.

Build The Tension, Then Release…Or Not

At its most basic, most music can be described as a series of tensions and releases.  This short piece is no different.

It starts off with a very simple ostinato played on the piano.  By themselves, ostinati are very effective at creating a hypnotic effect in the listener.  Repeating something over and over again lulls our brain into thinking it knows what to expect.  I deliberately counteract that effect in this piece by automating the amount of reverb on the piano.

Go back and listen again.  Do you notice how the amount of reverb on the piano part gradually lessens?  This creates a sense in the listener of being drawn into the scene.  If we visualize the music it isn’t hard to image that we are walking towards the piano.  The closer we get, the less reverb there is in the room.

All of this “movement” adds to the tension of the piece.  As a listener, we feel like we are on a journey and we are anxious to find out what the destination is.

Sound designers have understood for decades that automating effects levels is a great way to add character, excitement and suspense to an otherwise static or “run-of-the-mill” sound.  If you need an example go check out Ben Burtt’s work in any of the Star Wars movies.

Things That Go Bang In The Night

The second element of sound design that pops up in this piece is the metallic bangs and clangs.  I can’t tell you why but I am just drawn to metallic sounds, and I don’t mean cymbals.  I’m talking about dirty, nasty, organic bangs, scrapes and smashes.

I love collecting them on my Zoom H4n when I go off on my Sound Harvesting journeys.  In fact, some of the sounds you hear in that video made it into this piece of music.

In this particular piece, I’m using the metallic hits to jar the listener.  They’ve been lulled into a false sense of security by the piano ostinato so I wanted to wake them up.

Sure, I could have just banged on a couple of cymbals and probably achieved the same type of effect.  That would have been the most efficient, easy way to do things.  However, as I mentioned earlier, I want my music to stand out so I like to go the extra mile and create some of my own sounds.  This instantly separates my music from everyone else’s because I’m using “one-of-a-kind” sounds.

Go Make Some Noise

So, how can you incorporate some unique sound design into your music?  Really think about it.

Don’t know where to start?  Take a walk around your neighborhood and record some random sounds on your phone.  Import those sounds into your DAW and see what inspires you.

I think you’ll be surprised how easy it is to add unique elements of sound design to your music and how doing so instantly makes your music stand out from everything else out there.

Mood Music – A Case Study In Writing Suspenseful Music

If you’re at all interested in writing music for film or videos games one of the first things you are going to have to master is the ability to evoke a mood with your music.  Some composers find this very easy, others struggle with it.

One of the ways I’ve always learned best is by studying how others do things so I’ve decided to use a short piece of mine, Slowly Up The Stairs, as an example of how I write suspenseful music.

So first of all, take a listen to the piece right here:
Slowly Up The Stairs by SoundSavant

Now that you’ve listened to the piece what do you think?:

  • Was it effective in building tension?
  • Was it a little scary?
  • Did you find yourself getting a little anxious?

Let’s delve in, dissect it a little and see if we can figure out what makes it work.  But before we do that…

Are you familiar with this semi-famous quote?

“Writing about music is like dancing about architecture”

There’s some debate as to who said this first but I’ve always found it funny.  I’m now gaining a whole new understanding of this quote as I’m trying to verbalize here how I compose my music.

It isn’t always easy trying to explain how and why I make the decisions I do as I’m composing.  A lot of this is intuitive for me rather than intentional.  I just wanted to bring this up so that you could keep this in mind as I point out three of the techniques I use to create tension and suspense in music:

Use Scary Sounds

I say this somewhat “tongue-in-cheek” but what I’m really talking about is the contrast between consonant and dissonant sounds.  The piece starts off with something that sounds like a metallic scrape across a large cymbal.  This eerie, dissonant sound design element helps to set the tone for the rest of the piece.  We know right away that we should expect some creepy stuff to happen.

This contrast between consonance and dissonance continues in the low synth part that comes in underneath the cymbal sound.  While the intervals of the notes alternate between soothing and slightly disturbing the ostinato aspect of the part helps contrast with this dissonance, lulling the listener into a sort of dream-state.

I know I just dropped a couple of heavy musical terms on you but remember, as I’m composing I’m not specifically thinking about this stuff as much as I am feeling it.  Don’t get intimidated if you’ve never formally studied music.  That’s not what’s important.  What’s important is that you can hear and feel what works and then use that in your own music.

The other really cool scary sound in this piece is the warped flute that comes in about 3/4 of the way into the piece.  It’s a weird, yet familiar sound but the way it’s set against the wash of reverb and delay is unsettling and causes some real tension in the listener.

Dynamic Contrast

Have you ever noticed that you tend to feel slightly anxious or excited when you listen to music that goes back and forth between soft and loud sections?  Again, what we’re really talking about is the use of contrasting musical/sound design material.

In this piece, the initial cymbal screech is loud and then things quiet right down into the synth part.  Then the drums come in and things get louder and louder until the highpoint of the piece where the warped flute plays over a wash of very quickly disintegrating reverb/delay.  This contrast of very loud to very soft makes for an extremely dramatic and suspenseful climax to the piece..

Build Something Up And Then Take It Away

This actually happens in more than one way here.

The entrances of the various parts are scattered so that something new is added until everything is playing together.  Especially in the drums, this creates a  real sense of anticipation.  Things continue to build until the whole thing seems to blow up, leaving just this weird, warbling flute.

It’s much more subtle but did you notice the polyrhythm that was created as the delay on the high-hat track got progressively louder?  This just became another musical device driving you towards the climax of the piece.  Without realizing it, the polyrhythm caused you to get just a little more anxious, foreshadowing the entrance of the flute.  You knew something was going to happen, you just didn’t know what.

Go Try It In Your Own Music

There’s actually even more going on in this short piece but I think I’ve given you enough to work with for now.  Fire up the ‘ol DAW and put these three ideas to work.  If you come up with something cool I’d encourage you to connect with me on SoundCloud or Twitter.  I’d love to hear it!