Maybe cinematic is the wrong word to use(?). But techniques that might evoke imagery in the listener? Maybe for example:

I know this is highly subjective and there’s probably tons of better examples, but this is the only one I know of. Also since the artist says that he explicitly tries to create a "quasi-visual experience" in his latest releases. Soundtracks For The Blind and onward.

  • To make sure I understand your question, it seems like you are not asking about what makes music specifically written for a movie or TV show different from other music, is that right? You're asking about music that is listened to on its own and how that music can create imagery separate from any video content? Apr 1, 2021 at 19:42

2 Answers 2


This is a potentially broad question but I think a good answer can be summarized in a reasonable amount of text.

Any of the traditional dimensions of music can be used to evoke imagery, and it could be argued that essential all music is more or less evocative of images. That said, some pieces (Pictures at an Exhibition comes to mind) seem to be particularly evocative of images and stories, while others seem more abstract and cerebral or emotional.

Here are some primary tools that can be used to evoke images in music:

  • Rhythm, tempo, and meter: An obvious example of rhythm tempo and meter evoking an image is a march. This is music in 2/4 time played at a certain tempo (around 76 - 108 BPM) with a firm alternating rhythm. Add a snare drum and it's hard to not picture soldiers marching. Other clear links between rhythm and images are dance rhythms (waltz, rondo, latin rhythms, etc.), which may directly invoke images of dancing or merely suggest a fun environment.
  • Instrumentation and timbre: Many instruments have cultural associations (due to their history or other reasons), and those associations link the sounds of those instruments with certain images. The most obvious examples include certain drums that have been used on battlefields, along with certain brass sound that combined can create military images. Many instruments sound or can be made to sound like real world things. A flute can be played to sound a lot like birdsong. Drums or plucked low strings can sound like footsteps. Certain brass intervals can sound like car horns. Striking a cymbal in the right way can sound like an anvil (or you can just play an anvil). Tubular bells can sound like church bells. Many renditions of some Christmas songs have actual sleigh bells played along with them, and of course there are the cannons of the 1812 Overture.
  • Harmonic and melodic content: The notes that are played can remind us of real world images. Going back to the flute as birdsong and tubular bells as church bells examples, those only work if the note played are appropriate to the image. Low notes help create darker images, and may sound more sinister. Higher notes seem lighter and potentially more pleasant, unless the particular notes are dissonant and then they can evoke screams or unpleasant squeaks, cries, etc.
  • Articulation and playing style: Flowing legato passages create very different pictures in our minds from rhythmic staccato sounds. Quiet passages lend themselves more to peaceful vistas while fortissimo tuttis can remind us of crashing waves or thunderstorms.
  • Non-musical hints (titles): Most pieces that evoke vivid imagery do so intentionally, and are often named in the such a way. Soundtracks For The Blind is one example from the question - the music is announced in a way to suggest that even those who cannot see may find some kind of imagery in the music. Other famous examples of evocative titles include Pictures at an Exhibition (mentioned above), The Moldau, Rodeo, Carnival of the Animals, A Night on the Bare Mountain, The Sorcerer's Apprentice, and the list goes on and on. It's usually difficult to encounter image-invoking works without any knowledge of the title, so we are often primed to see in our minds what the composer is attempting to paint with music.

If it's not clear by now, of course it's really the effective combination of all these elements that creates the most vivid pictures in our minds. For example, if I were going to write a piece called "Dancing Birds", I might make it a waltz with a fairly brisk tempo, with flute, piccolo, and perhaps oboe playing high bird-song like melodies over a dance rhythm outlined by strings, harp, and/or low woodwinds, and perhaps find a way to have strings or winds play something that sounds like the wind in the trees. Maybe there would be a brief thunderstorm halfway through to give something to the brass and percussion before the harp announces the sun coming out of the clouds and the bird dance starting up again.

  • 1
    Another fun one: pizzicato strings for tiptoeing. Where did that one come from, I wonder...? Nice answer.
    – user45266
    Apr 1, 2021 at 20:23
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    @user45266 When I think of pizz strings I'm often reminded of the tarantula scene at the beginning of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Staccato clarinet and/or bassoon have also been used for tiptoe or sneaking, I think more often with humorous connotation compared with pizz strings. Apr 1, 2021 at 20:25

Reverb. Tons and tons of reverb. I know GarageBand has smart-control settings for related effects such as "room" (a type of echo characteristic) and "ambience".

A lot of hollow bassline at low volume ("background noise").

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