I don't know what's the name for this technique; it's used in most films and TV shows. I think it's done to create tension, shock or horror. I hear it when something bad happens, happened or is happening, mostly before camera transitions/cuts.

Basically a steady disturbing or unpleasant chord (not random or noise-like, maybe based on one note but mixed with similar yet conflicting notes) of high or low (not infra-sound or very low) notes; it somewhat gets louder but it doesn't escalate or change pitch. Usually lasts a few seconds then it stops all together/fades away.

I think they use string instruments, but I'm not an expert at music so I really don't know. Is there (hopefully) an official/unofficial name for this?

Here is an example: Evil Dead (2013) Soundtrack, example starts at 2:55-56; the video link starts at 2:52. Doesn't last very long, but should give you a good idea of the technique I'm talking about.

  • 2
    Maybe if you could post an example we could help.
    – Chris
    Mar 21, 2015 at 3:08
  • There's not a special term for creating tension/suspense, it's clear enough just to say that.
    – user28
    Mar 22, 2015 at 0:08
  • With that edit, couldn't you have put in a link (e.g. on YouTube) to an example, as everybody's asking for? That would really be more useful than any description with words. Jul 5, 2015 at 19:51
  • Just did. Sorry if I didn't consider about putting one in the first place.
    – bob paul
    Jul 5, 2015 at 21:37
  • 1
    Ok, that makes it clearer. So you mean that ~1 second long dissonant brassy sound at 2:56? Jul 5, 2015 at 22:29

5 Answers 5


There's a combination of techniques going on here simultaneously.

  • First is the choice of pitches. As you note, it is a steady disturbing or unpleasant chord. This means there is a single chord being held that contains a lot dissonance. A typical chord such as a major or minor chord contains only consonance. Even in seventh chords, the dissonances are usually fairly minimal. It's quite likely that in your example (and many of the places where this effect occurs), the type of chord is a tone cluster. Wikipedia defines a tone cluster as a chord which contains at least three adjacent notes in a scale, where "adjacent" can be relative to a chromatic scale (C, C♯, D) or a diatonic scale (C, D, E), or whatever other scale you happen to be using. It also quotes a textbook that defines it as "an extra-harmonic clump of notes." Clusters are used in more recent classical music (of the last hundred years or so), in jazz, and, as it specifically calls out: "Clusters are often used in the scoring of horror and science-fiction films." There is a footnote with several references that discuss the use of clusters in film music.

  • The second effect is the dynamics. You mention it somewhat gets louder. This means all of the instruments are performing a crescendo.

  • As a third factor, you could also consider the type of articulation used (which depends on which instruments are used). When played on brass instruments (as in your example), you might get that overblown, distorted brass sound that @Asterisk discusses in his answer. When played on strings (as in my second example below), the sustained notes are often performed in a shimmering tremolo effect (where you rapidly move the bow back and forth across the strings).

Combining the first two effects, you could generally describe the overall effect as a dissonant crescendo, or a crescendoing tone cluster. I haven't come across a more specific term for the technique. Searching on these terms, though, I found a few more examples:

  • Here's a brief youtube video demonstrating the effect: Dissonant Orchestral Crescendo. This example ends with an orchestral "hit", which is a loud, sharp staccato note played by the orchestra.

  • And here's a longer example of a tone cluster being played on just strings (you have to ignore the annoying audio watermark): Tone cluster - Strings; high-pitched


Some terms that come to mind, which you can look up and learn a lot about, are:

  • Cacophony
  • Discord
  • Tritone
  • Dissonance
  • Harmonic tension
  • Atonality
  • Sturm und Drang
  • Dissonant intervals

This should be a good start, at the very least!

  • I did search all of these terms. Though they are similar to what I'm describing, they're not exactly what I'm searching for.
    – bob paul
    Mar 20, 2015 at 22:16
  • @bob paul: sounds like a link to an example is the best thing to help us answer your question. Mar 21, 2015 at 12:50

That example you gives just sounds like a good old fashioned crescendo. It means gradually becoming louder. Maybe also has a sforzando piano type of effect as well.

Movie scores will also sometimes use a shrill stringed tremolo that gradually increases in loudness until the suspense is released. That may very well be that cat-on-a-tin-roof effect that you are wondering about.


Judging from the example, I think OP is just referring to the brass swell/"crescendo" happening from 2:55 to 2:59.

The voicing helps to create that effect as well.



I don't know if "brass swell" is proper orchestrator-ese, though.


One can use a pedal point in a regular rhythm (like repeated quarter notes or the like; the actual speed would be situation dependent.) Any harmony (consonant or dissonant) may be played above a pedal point this way. The most common pedal point notes are the (current) tonic or dominant. I would guess that the dominant (or whatever you want; it's most likely not going to resolve or be developed in the tension-creating part) would be good. These sound somewhat ominous, like a steady drum beat (deep tympani pedal point works too). I find that quiet pedal points actually sound more dramatic mostly. These can be resolved sometime later when the emotional situation changes (like during the final credits?}

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