What does tension sound like? Tension, in the case, meaning the feeling that if you don't complete your task in time, you will fail or be attacked. You have :05 to sell it.

(This is one of those questions that has no context. But that's ok, because the assignment doesn't really have a specific context, either.)

UPDATE: No ticking clocks! But you may incorporate other sounds that could evoke elements of time…

UPDATE: No heartbeats! But you may incorporate other sounds that could evoke awareness of one's own self…

  • heartbeats: do not want.... unless client does want ;) Aug 9, 2011 at 8:10
  • and the client always wants... Aug 9, 2011 at 21:12
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    but sometimes the client can be talked out of what they want! :) Aug 9, 2011 at 21:17
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    and sometimes the client scolds you and tells you to do it anyway (true story)...
    – Utopia
    Aug 10, 2011 at 0:07

22 Answers 22


To me, tension would be over-stimulated awareness of one's own presence and being. Maybe crescendo the cacophony of the BGz and effects and then suck it all out rapidly, resulting on only hearing breathing and maybe only 1 hyper-real sound of whatever action is being done (the bigger-than-life sound of tapping a pencil or tapping a foot on the ground, etc). Just choose one on-screen action and feature that in silence with an over-dramatic, hyper-real interpretation It can put the audience in a place of remembering our own feeling of tension where we have exited the ego of our mind and are left with observing our 'being' self almost as a 3rd person - aware of our breath and our every move as though we're being watched. Maybe leave it with a deep rumble under the near-silence because it's a non-direction frequency range and non-direction can be interpreted as tension (aka Interrogation room BGz).

  • @Stavrosound, very thoughtful and well said. Appreciate your input! Aug 9, 2011 at 7:29

Relative silence can do wonders.

  • @Andrew, I couldn't agree more with that sentiment. I am forever championing the use of silence whenever appropriate and effective, most of the time to no avail but there are the occasional victories. Aug 9, 2011 at 7:41
  • @jay it's one of my favorite bits of sound design (when it's done well). I feel like I heard this in a movie recently but can't place which one... Aug 9, 2011 at 7:45

My first thought was the literal tension of a taut rope on the edge of snapping. That slow, sporadic twitching of the rope being stretched by a weight, and maybe the occasional strands breaking.

For example, a rock climber, stuck on the side of a mountain, starts to hear the rope breaking. All other sounds drop out, even the ambiance, and we're left with silence, as others mentioned above. Layer that with the occasional, sudden stretches and snaps of the rope, and you've got a pretty tense moment!

Might be a little literal, but it's what I first thought of to "What does tension sound like"! :)

  • @Bryan, you've killed two birds with one stone: Tension, both in the figurative and literal sense! Thanks - Aug 9, 2011 at 16:42

haven't read the other responses yet, but my thought is that when we become tense we tend to focus.

soncially, this would equate to total silence broken only by either one's own breath or some combination of ones own breath and the completely dry foley of the one thing that the person is manipulating.

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    @Rene, FOCUS is a great concept that hasn't been mentioned in the other posts. It's been used successfully in many films. However, you could argue the other side of the coin as well, which would be that people in tense situations can also lose their focus and become confused and disoriented, with a cacophony of sounds occurring rather than a singular focus on one sound. Aug 9, 2011 at 16:38
  • @Jay, that's an interesting perspective. I guess they say do what you know, and I know that when I'm personally in a tense situation I tend to focus instead of panic. :)
    – Rene
    Aug 9, 2011 at 17:23

I could be way off, but the way I understand it is when adrenaline is released, hearing sensitivity decreases a bit to protect itself. Our ears also compensate for the loss by focusing more attention on "peak" sounds, resulting in a sort of hyper-sensitive effect.


  • OK, now that is cool.
    – g.a.harry
    Aug 9, 2011 at 11:20

Another idea is an insistent and unrelenting sound. This doesn't necessarily mean that that sound has to be a foreground element. A sound that will not go away, and has some slight/slow movement to it (pitch change, volume change [crescendo's work more frequently than decrescendos], pan position, or even movement from background to foreground) can create tension in the viewer/listener.

It's a Gestalt thing, we want either good continuation or resolution. Good continuation would equate to a "natural" movement, while resolution obviously implies some sort of end or transition. Good continuation often leads into resolution, but "breaking" the Gestalt of either one in a sound causes unease in the listener. The two ends of the intensity spectrum for broken Gestalt results in tension (increasing/focusing attention) for slow and subtle (preparing for "fight or flight" response), and immediate attention (triggered "fight or flight" response) for fast and instantaneous.

  • @Shaun, incredible answer. Very insightful! Aug 9, 2011 at 16:40

Dropping everything to a dull background and then adding a tinnitus whine, which can be experienced naturally under stress.


  • @Iain, great link - nice to know there's some documentation to backup all of this theatrical sound design! Aug 9, 2011 at 17:36

Hi Jay

  As previously mentioned I think manipulating BGs could be a great way to accent tension.

  Just as an example right now over here in the UK we’re experiencing quite a lot of trouble in the streets of certain places! I can imagine those places being very tense atmospheres right now.

Picturing myself in the middle of it all I can imagine hearing things like distant sirens, people (groups shouting), alarms going off, fire’s burning, water, dogs barking, crying, police helicopters, megaphones, metal groaning, car bys, wind.

  One scene that immediately springs to mind is in The Godfather. The restaurant scene with the train in the background. Helps develop the tension fantastically.


From a more physiological standpoint maybe accenting things like breaths and mouth noises/swallows could work? I know when I feel tense or nervous I dry up and it makes it harder to swallow lol Also sometimes when I’m feeling really under pressure people who are talking to me I might not really hear, as if they were being filtered out. Perhaps adding a similar effect to a bit of dialogue by filtering and pushing back with reverb/delay might achieve something similar.  

Hope that’s helpful   Andy

  • @Andy, lots of different concepts in your answer, which I like since this is question was asked very much in the abstract. I especially like what you said about "drying up" and not hearing the people talking to you, like they are fading into the background. Ultimately, you are focused entirely on your self and your situation, while all the peripheral sounds and actions are losing their importance. Thanks! Aug 9, 2011 at 16:46

There's been so many good answers, I don't know if I've come up with an original thought here. But I took a walk to the grocery store and came up with this short list.

  • Incessant Repetition - "dad, dad, dad, dad, dad, Dad, DAd, DAD" I'd say this falls under the ticking clock, passing-time category

  • Hyper Focus of the Mundane - With no context this seems awkward, but my thought was towards something like the squeak in the hinge of the wire cutters as our character picks the right wire to snip.

  • Plywood Stress / Creak / Groan / Tear - Tension, under great stress, ready to snap

  • Too Many Voices - Again with no context this one could just seem like a crowd, but thinking supporting character's voices sensibly overlapped to underscore the character's personal stake in failure.

  • Squeaky Hinge / Break Drum - Pitched to that same brain-piercing octave of early tinnitus

  • Balloon - Release the air through a pinched neck, reverse it. This goes under the rising pitch answer.

  • Tea Kettle - Same rising pitch idea, but with that undertone of pressure

  • Baby's / Child's Scream - Because we're wired for it

  • Screw Gun - I'm thinking of that ratcheting sound a drill motor makes when you tighten a screw too far.

  • Power Saw - Again rising pitch as it cuts through a long board, but with an edge of danger

  • Bag Full of Groceries - The combination of cans, cardboard and plastic in my grocery bag made this great sound with all the contents under strain as I walked along. Made me think of being crunched under pressure, although that could've just been my mindset.

That was a good walk. Thanks Jay!

  • @Steve, lots of good ones in there! My favorites of yours are the brake drum (so cool), baby scream and…bag of groceries? Weird, but maybe just weird enough! Aug 10, 2011 at 0:29
  • Yeah, it's amazing the things you can hear and justify on a casual stroll when your mind is focused on a topic like this. Great question @Jay, I'm loving the responses from everyone. Aug 10, 2011 at 13:33
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    +1 For the tea kettle! Ive used this idea effectively, and the conscious design attempt was to underline that the character needed to attend to something, was ignoring it, and the annoying, intensifying, shrieking kettle was there to make the audience REALLY want the character to make her decision and stop the sound. Economical for creating tension in the audience AND expressing the tension of character. Great question Jay! Aug 11, 2011 at 14:00

Lots of great answers here!

I think one of the most effective methods is the ascending pitch, as mentioned by several others. the reason this works so well, is that it targets a very primal reaction in us. Humans naturally/instictively try to sync ourselves with our surroundings, and this can bee seen in almost every area of our lives. We cry when others do, we laugh when others are, we get caught up in the moment when in a crowd/group environment (mobs, concerts, etc.), getting irrationally freaked out when the rest of the group does, sync-ed periods in a women's dorm room, your heartbeat trying to sync with the rhythm of a drumkit, etc. In light of this, look at how humans express intensity. An increase of intensity in an emotion, is directly matched by an increase in pitch. If I win the lottery, the pitch of my voice goes up the happier I get. If you wreck my new sportscar, the pitch goes up the angrier I get. The pitch of screams on a rollercoaster almost directly mirror the intensity of that particular turn or drop. The harder you twist your ankle, the higher you exclamation will be. When you step on a weak board, the pitch of the creak rises the more strain you place on it. Strain always elicits a higher pitch - especially when approaching the breaking point. An animals cry of alarm is quite often the highest pitched sound it makes.

While useful for escalating any type of response from your audience, it indeed works quite well for tension. For instance, consider the scenario given earlier about the climber's rope fraying. Try taking those sfx, and slowly pitching them up, over time. The tension in your audience will rise right along with it. Imagine the hero approaching a door to open it... but unseen behind this door lurks the monster, ready to leap out. Your audience is already tense, having been cursed with the knowledge of his impending doom, but now slowly begin to pitch his footsteps up, and their tension will rise to new heights - right along with the feet. Each ring of an urgent phone call, is subtly higher than the last... Rinse and repeat.

Another area with incredible potential for creating tension can be found here.

The heroine is hiding in the closet, as the experimental creature is ransacking the lab. Suddenly she (along with your audience) is overcome with utter dread, as the room grows deathly silent. No longer able to auditorily track the creature's whereabouts, one can only tremble in silence - awaiting the moment the door is suddenly torn off it's hinges. Or consider the red flags that appear, when a parent realizes that their child in the other room has gone strangely silent. This means Junior is into mischief again...


something that cuts through everything else? maybe a ticking clock or something else in a higher frequency realm that if you heard constantly for a lil will just stresses you out? if its rhythmic it could possibly simulate a clock and that time is running out.

i thought of the strings in psycho straight away, but they are more music

not a very creative answer though ahah

  • @Jamie, thanks for your thoughts. It's OK to include elements that are musical/tonal, since there may or may not be music playing at this point in the story. Aug 9, 2011 at 6:54

The concept of rising sounds has been described in many answers, but one thing is missing: I have been using the idea of the Shepard–Risset glissando very successfully to create and (not to forget) to keep the tension. It's a rising sound, that never stops rising.


Either you create a rising Shepard–Risset glissando that goes along well with the rest of your sound design or you take it one step further and match the tonality of your BGs, Foleys and so on to the partials of the Shepard-Tone.

(This idea works the other way around, too: the falling glissando is loosening tension as if you would loosen the strings of a guitar to the point where you can't perceive pitch anymore.)

Another concept I frequently use is the following: match BGs and/or FX in a way that you never hear when one stops and another begins, by matching the tonality, color and level of the sound at the point of transition. Then work with the mentioned Gestalt-theory: End the sound or transition to the next sound before one would recognize what that sound exactly is. The result is an atmosphere that is constantly evolving and shifting, pulling the imaginary ground under the listeners feet.

Very interesting question @Jay, and inspiring, good answers. Thank you everybody.


I think it would have to be a violin playing tremolo, maybe also rising in pitch.

  • @Eric, I agree with the rising approach - most tension builds incorporate some element of ascending pitch or ramp. Thanks for sharing - Aug 9, 2011 at 8:10

I'm thinking may be something like a telephone ringing, its sounds stupid but I find it hard to resist while I'm doing something I can't just stay calm and just pick it up in my own time, I just feel the need to hurry and pick the damn thing, unless I'm in a bad mood and don't want to talk to who it is obviously. I don't know if its just me, I could be completely wrong though haha.

  • I guess a good example would be like in "The Ring", I haven't seen the film but the telephone rings would make the scene pretty tense I'd imagine. Aug 9, 2011 at 9:04
  • @Stephen, I have a similar reaction to door knocks - I don't know why, but they jolt me every time, even if I'm expecting them! Maybe it's the sudden interruption of the constant sounds surrounding me. IMO, your idea of rhythmic telephone rings falls under the category of passing time. Other sound cues in this vein could be ticking clocks, heart beats, steady breathing, etc. Aug 9, 2011 at 16:50

I like Mr. Spitz's idea. Frenetic motion into a hard cut hang. If you're about to be chased you could cut everything but the sound of a single piece of gravel under the chaser's shoe as he stares menacingly.

Basically pick one sound out of the everything that's going on and let it hang out over the otherwise silent void.

  • @g.a.harry, cool approach. It goes along the lines of @Rene's answer, being one of intense focus. Aug 9, 2011 at 16:41

For me, complete silence with an ever ramping up "white noise" or subtle ambiance. If you've ever been in a place where it's so quiet, the white noise is deafening, that's the feeling I'd force artificially - not really that even "roar", but a few key frequencies accentuated.

Add to that some stilted breathing recorded in a VO booth, and you've got a nice claustrophobic, tense-sounding moment.

  • @VCProd, I've found that, rather than hearing a white noise in quiet spaces, I usually become more aware of high frequency tones or that "tinnitus" whine. Guess I listened to too much loud music in my youth! Thanks for the thoughts - Aug 9, 2011 at 16:33
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    @Jay That's interesting.. I think we all hear our own version of white noise in the quiet. Mine is louder in lower frequencies (800 - 1k ish), which makes my head feel like it's under pressure. It'd be fun to see what frequencies accentuated out of white noise gives different feelings to listeners (fear, apprehension, annoying..)
    – VCProd
    Aug 9, 2011 at 17:14

The classic dripping tap [though I'm not quite sure that'd find it's way into a studio/client context?]

But really, the most tense moments would be that suspense hung in the air moment of silence!

  • @Colin, your suggestion of a dripping tap is a unique way to convey time passing, a la ticking clock, beating heart, etc. Thanks! Aug 9, 2011 at 16:30

I'm late and many good answers have said what I couldn't so:

I would experiment with an electric guitar and a piece of metal or something to create some good scratching sounds which to me communicate tension and something about to be pushed past the breaking point.

Maybe some extremely loud screaming vocals or screams turned down to be barely audible under the foley or real-world sounds can create a nice subliminal bed for what you want to communicate.

Pulsating low-end. Sort of like when the dreams start collapsing in Inception.

High pitched frequencies 12.5K and above ramped up to an exaggerated volume after dropping out all other sound (sort of like silence, but with a tone - think opening scene of Children of Men).

What about something totally out there, like a rattle-snake rattle or cicada?

Don't forget this advice:

“Sometimes in the creativity area like sound, my instincts tell me to do one thing, but I do exactly the opposite and see what happens. For example, if you’re designing a scary weird creature, try putting in a high-pitched, low-level sound. Who knows, maybe that will be scarier.” Gary Rydstrom

Hope I could help.. Good luck!

  • Like the Rydstrom quote. Aug 10, 2011 at 0:43
  • @Jay Oh and nothing else, eh? Bah!
    – Utopia
    Aug 10, 2011 at 1:09

Are we talking "experimental sound design" or "realistic" sound design?

If experimental as I understand it, check out ANY thriller, horror action trailer, it's full of this stuff. Very effective is anything that SLIDES up, or anything that accelerates.

Also add some high frequency stuff, jiggling around 10-12 Khz, almost inaudible, but it adds that extra stress. :)

  • @Markus, thanks for the response. We're finding common thoughts with the "ascending" effect and the "tinnitus/ringing" effect. Aug 10, 2011 at 17:24

Angelo Badalamenti's use of pure, stark silence during a tightening shot, or even during a seemingly mundane shot, is extremely powerful. It's a silence that you can hear, as if it creates a tangible vacuum of sound.

  • @theodorejordan, I'm not familiar with the work but will make an effort to check it out. Thanks - Aug 11, 2011 at 17:50
  • He does the sound and music for David Lynch films. Aug 11, 2011 at 18:18

increase gain on room noise to crazy level?


Tension has no sound and is not a sound

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    @chris, that's up for debate. Space is a vacuum; so why is it always so low and rumbly? Aug 12, 2011 at 2:10
  • @Jay, maybe it's time for a change? It seems like there is an equation of dark colors as background, also, dark colors as low, I don't know. If you were in space, you'd hear your body freezing and oxygen rushing out of your pores.
    – ChrisSound
    Aug 12, 2011 at 3:08
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    "tension has no sound," is not really in the spirit of the question. this thread is more about using sound as a storytelling device to convey the feeling of tension...providing depth for the character and/or engendering a reaction in the viewer/listener. i'd be much more interested in hearing your take on that. Aug 12, 2011 at 11:43

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