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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!

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