We all know that a great soundtrack can stir emotions in the audience. But few genres have a direct line to the emotional centers of our brain than suspense and horror. Suspenseful music, when done right, can make all the difference.

Great horror movie music doesn’t often win Oscars, but it does stay with us long after the lights have gone up. There’s an art to using suspense music to create terror, dread, and fear. Here’s how some of your filmmakers and composers create horror music by balancing two key elements: horror and revulsion.

Watch: Suspenseful Music in a Film Score


How does suspenseful music work?

Scary movies are all about maintaining the careful balance of tension and revulsion to build fear. Thus, horror movie soundtracks are all about balancing suspense music and horror music.

Suspenseful Music - Tension and Revulsion - StudioBinder

Tension is the slow build. It's the part of the movie where the heroine is reaching for the door and maybe, just maybe, the monster is on the other side. This is where you would deploy suspenseful music.

It makes us tense up in our chairs, waiting, waiting, waiting for the other shoe to drop. Because we can't stand the waiting any longer.

Revulsion, however, is the moment the shoe drops. It's the killer stabbing a knife into someone's chest. It's the revelation that the handsome and loving boyfriend...is actually a vampire.

If tension is suspenseful music, then revulsion is where horror music takes over.

The key to horror movies, and horror movie soundtracks, is balancing those two moments. Cue the revulsion in too soon, and the audience doesn't have enough time to build up their fear.

It's all flash, no substance.

Let the tension go on too long, however, and the audience, desperate to break the tension, will break it themselves. Usually by cracking a joke or disconnecting from the movie altogether.

Both are the kiss of death for you.


Instruments in suspense music

The two most commonly used instruments in suspense music are synthesizers and strings.

Synthesizer music is eerie and artificial.  Notes can last far longer than any human could hold them. Perfect for suspense music.

However, they're also a historical side effect. Many of the great horror movie filmmakers of the 80's used synthesizers because they’re cheap. Scary movies are traditionally made on a shoestring budget.

Strings, on the other hand, have been used to raise tension for much longer. You might recall a famous example in Psycho (1960).

String instruments can also hold notes for an unnaturally long time. Layering discordant strings on top of each other only increases this unsettling effect. It sounds wrong to the human ear in a way other instruments don’t.

Like a predator, or something that shouldn’t exist. Anything that activates the lizard brain is perfect for suspense music.

This effect works great for the moments where the monster is lurking behind a character. Seen by the audience, but not by the victim.

But you can also use it to build tension by layering those strings over innocent scenes. Take this moment from The Shining (1980).

Suspenseful Music - The Shining - StudioBinder

Without the suspenseful music, the Overlook isn’t so bad. Really.

Until Danny meets the terrifying twins, there's nothing going on here that's all that frightening. Just a little boy playing on his bike. 

But don't tell the horror movie music that.


How does tempo create suspense?

The human brain is easily fooled.  If our heartbeats are raised for any reason, our brains assume we must be afraid.

So anything you can do with suspenseful music to raise your audience's heartbeat will make them more afraid.

One of the easiest ways to do this is to raise the tempo.

Tempo is defined as the speed at which a piece of music should be played. The higher the tempo, the faster the music.

This is especially true if your music is already very staccato — made up of short, individual notes. Knowing this, it makes sense that good suspense music can mimic a fast heartbeat.  

Not immediately, mind you.  This technique is about suspense music, not horror music. It’s all about the slow build. It starts out slow, then builds and builds.

Think John Williams' famous from Jaws (1975). One of the greatest pieces of suspenseful music ever written.

You can probably hum it right now.  

It starts slow. But then the beat gets faster, and faster, and faster.  And your heart starts to pound along with it.  Until you can't take the suspense any longer and…


What effect do crescendos have?

Revulsion is the payoff moment of horror and suspense movies. Where you break out all the expensive special effects and stunt performances.

Those moments need to be reflected in horror movie soundtracks. In music, a crescendo is where the volume hits its peak.

This is where you use your scariest music.  You can still mimic a heartbeat.  You can still use strings or synths. But this isn’t suspense music, this is horror music.

Take everything you’ve been doing and turn it up to 11.

The build-up, the tension, is where you want the audience's muscles to get tense, almost ready to run from the monster that could kill them.

This part, the revulsion, is where you want the audience to jump. To scream. To let out all that energy.

In essence, it's where you want to actually scare them.

Suspenseful Music - Ghostbusters - StudioBinder

Without horror music in Ghostbusters (1984), how will we know who to call?

up next

Mastering the Film Score: John Williams 

Of course, there's more to frightening people than just putting on scary music.  Many directors can make you twitch with just a color palette.

If it were that simple, you could put horror music over a scene of someone baking a cake and call it a day.

Suspenseful Music - Florence and the Machine - StudioBinder

But without suspenseful music, a scary movie isn't quite as scary. Alfred Hitchcock initially didn't want there to be any music in the famous shower scene in "Psycho".

But you can’t imagine that scene without its legendary soundtrack now.

Check out our video series to learn other ways you can use music. If you're interested in building terrifying antagonists or shooting your vampire film at night, you can read more great film tips at our blog!

John Williams scores heighten character emotion, but how? Learn how music can make your movie and find stock music to fill out your score.

Mastering the Film Score: John Williams →
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  • Pat Regan grew up in New Orleans and somehow found himself in Los Angeles. He likes a good story in all its forms and in his spare time, cooks and runs up walls. He writes about tabletop roleplaying games and storytelling at rememberyourdice.wordpress.com

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