How Music Creates Cinematic Suspense

Many filmmakers use music to evoke a feeling in an audience through dissonance, crescendos, and rhythmic pulse.

Music is integral for evoking drama, tension, or excitement in movies. It can also create an emotional response within an audience, which can make it easier to relate to a story on the big screen, and drive the plot forward.
Using the wrong music can also detract from a scene and destroy what could have become an iconic moment in film. Budding filmmakers hoping to captivate an audience should keep reading to learn how music can create cinematic suspense.


Crescendos are one of the most popular techniques for creating tension in film. For those unfamiliar with crescendos, it is music that continues to build in intensity and volume until it reaches a climax. For example, a piece of music could gradually build to hold audiences in suspense until they hear a startling scream. An excellent example of a crescendo is The Freedom Theme from Braveheart (1995).

False Crescendos

A false crescendo is a crescendo with a twist. For example, the music will build up in intensity to create audience suspense, and, just when they are expecting a climax, they will hear a deathly silence instead. It is a technique often used in horror and thriller movies. The final scene of The Sopranos is also a prime example of a false crescendo.


Many filmmakers often use juxtaposition to unite two opposites. For example, a director might choose to play upbeat music over what would have been a rather dull monologue. It can ultimately lead to greater audience engagement, as the essential scene can push the story forward while maintaining viewer interest. 

Rounders (1998) is a perfect example of juxtaposition. The movie’s director, John Dahl, incorporates mysterious music when a character explains Texas hold’em rules, which helps to grab a viewer’s attention. It ultimately turns what could be a mundane conversation into a riveting scene. For this reason, juxtaposition is one of many common poker movie music tactics, as it can build excitement, tension, and intrigue.


Musicians attempting to write a movie score carefully choose their notes and sounds, which ensures that the music complements the film or an important scene. For example, synthesizers, organs, strings, and Theremins are commonly used in many horror films, as they are characteristically creepy or sad. Musicians and filmmakers might also choose to switch between various major and minor chords to build audience suspense and create confusion.


Dynamics can cleverly make a movie feel tense or full of suspense. It works by increasing or lowering the volume of a piece of music during a scene. For instance, a filmmaker might cut back on music during a horror film and then suddenly boost the volume to frighten a viewer. It is a tactic that can turn a scary moment into an iconic movie scene.

Rhythmic Pulse

Many filmmakers use rhythmic pulse to trigger a reaction in an audience member. For example, they might use a subtle beat in a scene or throughout a film to add a fourth dimension to the experience. 

Once an audience becomes used to a sound, a filmmaker may then stop the rhythmic pulse, and the silence can cause an unsettling feeling in a viewer, which can aid the cinematic experience. As soon an audience member realizes the sound has disappeared, it can add suspense or intrigue into a moving image. It is a powerful way to push a scene forward and keep viewers on the edge of their seats in a movie theatre or on a sofa.


Dissonance is the sound of two or more inharmonious notes. To create a dissonant effect, many moviemakers tend to switch between soothing and mysterious sounds, which can make a viewer feel uncomfortable. 

For instance, filmmakers could make a scene feel scary by adding in various noises, such as screams, echoes, or the scraping of metal. It is a sure-fire way to send a shiver down an audience member’s spine. The theme from Alien (1979) is a prime example, as a high-pitched noise is used to mimic an alien, and clashing synthesizer notes and hanging flutes are also used to keep the viewer on edge. 

Another dissonance option is to add one or more disturbing notes into a popular theme or musical motif, which can play with an audience member’s mind, as it will be different from the original version.

Sound Design 

Suspense can be added to a movie by utilizing sound design, which is the manipulation of various sounds. Many filmmakers will add both sound effects and samples into a piece of music. 

The sounds will not only need to complement the piece, but they should keep a viewer on edge throughout the scene. For example, adding children’s laughter or singing over a song could be chilling, and could indicate that a disturbing moment is coming. It is guaranteed to force an audience to watch the flick through their fingers.

While exceptional writing, superb performances, and unique cinematography are essential in filmmaking, music has the power to elevate a scene and create one or more emotions inside an audience – take the Jaws’ theme song as a perfect example. 

It is, therefore, essential to remember the above tactics when attempting to create cinematic suspense. It is also worthwhile bearing in mind that less can sometimes be more. After all, few sounds could be eerier than a single string note held for a long time or the repetition of the same piano key.

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