Definition of Suspense

Posted: May 9, 2012 in Unit 4: Award Specific Taught Unit


Music to enhance suspense

‘The role of music in eliciting suspense in narrative is well-known. Certain film scenes would be much less interesting and suspenseful if there were no music accompanying them. As an example of this, we can mention a scene in Hitchcock’s film “Psycho”, where Janet Leigh is driving fast to escape the city, glancing regularly in her rear-view mirror. Seeing this scene with and without music produces very different effects. We believe that the music both triggers and signals a feeling of tension and anxiety. The spectator is affected by the mood of the music, but also interprets the presence of this music as a signal on the part of the film director that some highly significant and possibly dangerous event is imminent. This in turn heightens the attentiveness of the spectator to every small detail that might announce this event, and perhaps also makes the spectator imagine more vividly the different possibilities of what might happen.’

‘Music can have the function of signalling i) either that something is about to happen (imminence), or ii) that something is not what it seems (missing information). It achieves these goals often by using its own musical suspense techniques. In Western culture, there are a certain number of musical ‘suspense signalling clichés’ which have been established, such as: diminished chords, tremolo passages, sudden variations in volume and so on. In music theory, these constructions are analysed as having high instability, or unpredictability, and this feature is perhaps important in their evocation of suspense.’

‘Another feature which can sometimes intensify suspense is musical silence (see a recent analysis by Fink of music in Hitchcock films. Silence may work by creating a type of musical ‘plot lull’, a kind of emptied acoustic space which (perhaps metaphorically) triggers the expectation that something will fill the space and that a sudden change may be imminent. Plot lulls are one of the features we observed during the exploratory phase of this research’.

‘So, suspense in narrative can clearly depend also on extra-narrative features like music. However, the media-specific contributions to suspense that such features make will not however be our concern here’.

Suspense in music

‘Musical structure has often been compared to a narrative form. The theoretical language of music theory even uses the term suspense in different situations (‘suspended cadence’, ‘suspended fourth’…) along with references to suspense over larger time scales when we feel the build-up of the music towards a culminating high-point where ‘something must happen’. When it finally arrives, the high-point often also contains an element of surprise, and this of course mirrors the behaviour of many story plots.’

‘Unlike suspense in story, however, musical suspense does not usually evoke the emotion of fear. It seems that fear needs a more concrete link to the real world in order to be evoked. Within the framework of this research, it remains to be seen whether i) analogies from the musical world could give useful insights for our model of suspense in story, or ii) our model of suspense could be applied in a music theoretical setting.’

Richard Doust, [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 9May 2012]

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