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

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.

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