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The secret to audio intensity

Posted by Mike Cooke - Director of Production at PHMG on

We only have to take one look – and listen – to a horror film to know that the scare lies in the sound, and yet another landmark box office release has proved this theory with a tension-packed soundtrack. But exactly how does music work to put audiences on the edge of their seats? Join us as we find out the secret behind the score – and explore the work of a true master of sensory suspense.

The most distinctive film scores of all time have been celebrated for the way they create tension for the viewer – the screeching, stabbing chords of the Psycho shower; and Jaws’ slowly building bass notes of the great white’s sinister approach. Last month, a landmark cinema release continued this proud tradition, when Christopher Nolan’s wartime epic Dunkirk hit the screens to critical and audience acclaim. On top of the emotional acting and spectacular cinematography, part of what gave the film its ‘heart-hammering intensity’ was its soundtrack. As the troops stormed the infamous beach by land, air and sea, an overwhelming orchestra fills our ears – but it’s more than the instruments that make the audience move to the very edge of their seats.

Dunkirk’s soundtrack is characterised by one key feature that carries its overwhelming sense of growing tension – the shepard tone. A clever auditory illusion, this technique layers three parts on top of each other, each of which is separated by an octave. As each tone moves up the scale, the highest pitch one gets quieter, the middle remains loud, and the lowest increases to reach an audible level. This means the listener always hears two rising tones, so the scale is in constant ascension – appearing to go on for infinity without ever reaching a crescendo. The result is a decidedly sinister sound that works to drive the screenplay forward, and it’s particularly clear on the soundtrack’s opening piece, ‘The Mole.’ This composition also begins with the distinct sound of a ticking clock, instantly suggesting that time is running out in a way that further heightens the tension.

The composer responsible for this audio mastery is the renowned Hans Zimmer, who regularly partners with Christopher Nolan to create rich soundscapes to the acclaimed director’s complex, creative worlds. Nolan’s films are often themed around time – in particular, how its warps in our memory. The ticking and the shepard tone have both become motifs of Zimmer’s to indicate these themes, the former acting as a constant reminder of time slipping away, and the latter almost elongating time by seeming to go on forever. He’s also most praised for his unrivalled ability to blend musical technology with traditional instrumentation in a way that works itself into the very narrative of the film – a skill that is most evident in 2010 sci-fi epic, Inception. The song ‘Je Ne Regrette Rien’ is an important feature of the film, acting as an indication that it’s time for the characters to wake up and leave the dream world. At key plot points, Zimmer takes certain notes from the song and slows them down to various speeds. This actually works to guide the audience, acting as an indicator as to when the characters are entering their second and third tier dreamworlds. So for viewers in the know, it acts as a supremely clever way to navigate the complex plot of the film.

Audio auteurs like Hans Zimmer prove the incredible potential of sound as a storytelling device. And as auteurs of audio branding, we achieve similarly powerful results in creating exclusive tracks that tell the story of a business.

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