Darkness and Tension in Film Sound Part 1

How does one drive fear with sound?

There isn’t a specific timbre that causes fear. The main driving force behind fear is placing the appropriate sounds at the appropriate time. Sounds that create tension, such as dissonant chords, are often use in places where the composer would like to drive suspense. A good choice of SFX, and the use of LFE, can assist with driving fear too.



A visual example of the auditory illusion known as “Phantom Centre”. (Sidd Productions, 2018).

What is a Phantom Centre?

The term “Phantom Centre” refers to when the listener is placed directly between the speakers, and can hear sound that seems to be coming from the centre, yet there is no centre speaker.

The plan for our first film production this trimester is as follows:

1. Dialogue Edit & Mix

2. Spotting Session

3. Foley & Atmos Recordings

4. Spotting

5. Composition

6. Final Mix

So, how exactly does one create tension and fear in the listener?

This is by no means an end-all be-all list, just some suggestions.

1. Use sounds sparingly. There’s nothing worse than being thrown huge stabs and stinger at every corner, eventually you become used to it, so when the monster finally appears, you’re just like “oh, okay, whatever”.

2. Put yourself in the character’s shoes. If there’s a non-essential sound that wouldn’t scary to that character at that time, delete it.

3. Subtlety is key. Mix your SFX as if they were in the original recording. If the average listener is aware that a sound was added after, as opposed to recorded by camera, the sound is too obvious.

Creative Piano Academy (2017)

4. The Hitchcock Chord. This chord has seen its rounds in film and become a staple.

Start with your root, then add a minor 3rd.
Add a major 3rd onto your minor 3rd.
Add another major 3rd on top of your major 3rd.

For example, C, Eb, G, B. You can also move the C, or whichever root note you choose up by an octave which will create a lot of dissonance between B and C.
Add in two octaves of the root note in the bass and you’re done!
This chord works well on soft piano, staccato piano, and staccato strings.

5. Swapping between major and minor chords.

For example, normally you might hear A Major followed by F Major. If you simply change it to an F Minor, it challenges the listener’s perception of what should be there and creates a sense of queasiness.

This chord lends itself well to soft arpeggiated background piano music. For additional browny points add some funkiness with the left hand in the bass.

Vox (2017)

6. The Shepard Tone drives suspense by giving the illusion of a tone that never stops rising.



Sidd Productions [Image] (2018).
Retrieved from http://www.sidd.biz/music-production-tips-mixing-panning/

Creative Piano Academy (2017, October 30). Scary Piano Chords: 3 CHILLING Ways to Create Scary Chords on the Piano [Halloween Special] [Video file].
Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q0_irBqVDe4

Vox (2017, July 26). The sound illusion that makes Dunkirk so intense [Video file].
Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LVWTQcZbLgY


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