The Synthesized Effect

Why Electronic Underscores Are So Effective

If you’re a fan of the great composer Hans Zimmer like we are at CSS Music, you’ve probably noticed his use of a “tick-tock” under opening scenes. His latest composition for the hit film Dunkirk utilizes the sound of an actual watch owned by the director Christopher Nolan and this sound evolves into an unsettling wash that creates a tremendous amount of tension.

More than just a simple single synthesizer or instrument, Zimmer creates what is known as the Shepard tone, or more precisely a Shepard-Risset Glissando. This is created using 3 chromatic, sequenced arpeggios—a high tone, medium register and low climbing tone, each an octave apart. The middle tone always remains constant. When the highest tone reaches its zenith it begins to fade as the low tone rises in level. The net result? A very eerie auditory effect where the music seems to endlessly rise but it’s the same sequence played over and over again.

When you’re looking for this type of sound for your show, CSS Music has a disc that decidedly embraces elements of this effect, Super Themes volume 68 Encounters (Tension, Suspense & Aggressive Undercurrents.) From the first cut, “Time Tracker” with its pulsing “time clock” accented with percussive elements, this track keeps you on the edge of your seat. Another track, “Heart Beating Tension” uses the sound of a heartbeat as the foundation and is then embellished with a dark and eerie pad that never evolves keeping scary tension throughout.

A less frightening take on this idea can be heard with “Clock Watching” that offers a static pulse with non-intrusive elements that augment the mood. If you need a more modern take on this type of music, “Remember To Breathe” offers an other worldly sequencer with a hip hop groove and piano-like melodic arpeggios. For something that still presents tension with a touch of New Age, “End Of The Day” will give you just the right vibe.


CSS Royalty Free Music continues to follow the trends in film music, advertising, pop culture and where the production music industry is moving. We will update our vast library with these new styles as they evolve and let you know via this blog what we’re doing. Til then, go forth and give your next show some super serious tension!