The Use of Music to Create Suspense and Drama

Music can be used to provoke a variety of emotions in the listener, with tension and suspense among the most commonly used in different types of entertainment. How does it work and when should you listen for this sort of tactic being used?  

When Does This Apply?

Music is often used to build up suspense in TV shows and movies. If we’re waiting for something to happen or if the characters are hiding or running away, the music can take the action to the next level in terms of the drama created.

This can apply even when nothing is really happening on screen. Think of the iconic Jaws music with its two repeated notes, which gets the viewer’s pulse racing even when what we see doesn’t really merit this happening. In this way, the director can trigger our emotions in different ways, even if director Steven Spielberg needed some convincing to use this simple theme.

Music can also be used in game shows and the likes of lottery draws. For an example of this, if you go online to find out if you won the Powerball jackpot, you can watch it live and then listen for the music or sound effects used to create tension as each number is drawn. You can check the numbers online after the draw too while viewing the PowerPlay winners and prize amounts.

How Is It Done?

There are several techniques that are widely used to do this, with perhaps the simplest being sudden changes in volume. Horror movies are a good example of how effective this can be, as the volume of the music may be lowered and then suddenly increased to fit in with the action on the screen and make us jump in shock.

The use of a recurring beat can also be effective. For example, if a certain piece of music is used to tell us when a fearsome character appears or when something bad is about to happen, we feel on edge as soon as we hear it each time. Another technique involves introducing a recurring beat and then taking it away, which can be unsettling.

Mysterious sounds or jarring noises can also be added to a soundtrack, to add to the tension created as events unfold and the viewer is kept on edge. Even something simple like screaming or metal being scraped can add something extra to the viewing experience. What about the Nightmare on Elm Street series of movies with its haunting nursery rhymes that make things appear sinister even before Freddy Krueger appears in the scene?

A Clockwork Orange takes a different approach, by using pleasant songs that jarred in the context of a movie that’s filled with unpleasant scenes. This causes a degree of dissonance between what we see and hear that makes us feel uncomfortable.

All of these techniques need to be done expertly so that they add to what the viewer sees on the screen rather than taking away from it. When done well, they ensure that the music is one of the most exciting parts of the series or movie, but without being intrusive or taking our full attention away from what we see.