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Calum Andrew Morrell

"Tense" music in film

If it's not sparse, it's not working.

Added on the 6th of November, 2023

When music is used in film to indicate a scene should be building in tension it needs to be done sparingly or the overall effect is severely diminished. Yet so often it is heavily overdone to the detriment of the audience engagement.

A couple of days ago I watched Ring - the 1998 Japanese horror film written by Hiroshi Takahashi & Koji Suzuki and directed by Hideo Nakata - which at the time of writing is available to watch on the excellent platform MUBI.

This film is a beautiful work of art featuring fantastic cinematography, editing and acting. But this isn't a review of the film. What I want to explore is the nature of the horror film and other genres that make use of fabricated tension to enhance the viewer experience. It's fairly standard to use music to indicate when the scene is tense or something is about to happen. This can provide a useful cue for the viewer, even if unconsciously observed. Clearly a good thing and I would say that Ring does a good job of using music in a positive way. Unfortunately this isn't always the case.

I've noticed in recent years that tense music is becoming decidedly invasive, to the point that in many films and TV programmes the music suggests tension at almost every minor event that occurs. The problem here is that when a genuinely tense scene arrives the music simply has no where to go. This leaves me feeling cheated with all the unfulfilled promises that something is about to happen and then simply underwhelmed at any real action. This is happening more and more often in big budget mainstream works, so it's not just amateur (sorry, early career?) media composers and directors who haven't settled into their own style yet.

In order to create tension through the audio track there needs to be suitable relaxed downtime so there's somewhere to go. The industry knows this. It knows the tremendous impact of music and audio effects on an audience. It's not so much shooting itself in the foot as banging a cymbal beside my head constantly.

All I can hope is that this trend will fizzle out over (a very short) time. In the meantime there are plenty of films produced by skilled artists to keep me happy, many of them little known independent productions which are often far more enjoyable to watch. Just one more reason to subscribe to MUBI!

Posted in the Film category commentary, horror, mubi, music, tense