Suspense in Classical Music (and Books!)

suspense books and music

“But Mr. Tate said, “This court will come to order,” in a voice that rang with authority, and the heads below us jerked up. Mr. Tate left the room and returned with Tom Robinson. He steered Tom to his place beside Atticus, and stood there. Judge Taylor had roused himself to sudden alertness and was sitting up straight, looking at the empty jury box.”

-To Kill a Mockingbird

Suspense is obviously in horror stories (“No! Don’t open that door!!!”) but it’s also all over the other books we read whenever we find ourselves holding our breath to see what comes next. So I started thinking about how suspense can be communicated in music, too. I’ve heard it in these ways:

1) The music cuts off to silence before it sounds done (it’s hard to describe without using fancy musical jargon like “half cadence,” but in general it sounds like the music stops before it “should.”) Like this clip from The Big Bang Theory (too good not to reference):

2) If the music continues after the cliffhanger pause, then it might be telling you what happened next. Does that character in the horror story open the door? What’s behind it?? And if the song itself ends on a suspenseful note, then you can either choose to imagine an ending in your mind or dwell in the mystery…

What are your favorite songs or pieces of music that sound suspenseful? Or are you more like Sheldon and hate “suspense” in music? I’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments!

This post has been pretty short, but if you’re interested in more similarities between books and music, you can check out The Irony of Portraying “Stillness” in Books (and Classical Music)Hyperbole in Literature…and Classical Music!, and Different Perspectives in Books…and Music! to name a few!

7 thoughts on “Suspense in Classical Music (and Books!)”

  1. I think repetition is a good way to build up suspense in music, especially if it’s strings. I’m thinking of ‘Prepared to Do Anything’ from the Sherlock soundtrack. The same two seconds of violin music underlies the main part of the track as the rest of the score builds up and up, putting your nerves on edge. It’s like the winding of a jack-in-the-box; you never know when the music’s going to jump up to a crescendo and startle you.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I think one of my favorites is “No Good Deed Goes Unpunished” from Wicked. It starts out with repetitive trills that make shivers go down my spine. Then, somewhere around the middle, the song hits a break, and Elfaba (the singer) speaks a few of her friend’s names very softly and slowly–then wham, the music builds up and she screams “FIYERO!!!” (the name of her lost lover). Not sure if this counts as the half cadence you referenced, but it sure does give me goosebumps! In this case, the song continues after the lull, and as you said, the continuation does kind of tell what happens next. It is a huge psychological resolution for the singer. She has decided that, since her lover is lost, “no deed will [she] do ever again!”

    Thanks for this wonderful post, which gave me an opportunity to geek out about one of my favorite, gut-wrenching songs.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ooh, that sounds amazing! I’m not familiar with Wicked actually though I’ve heard great things about it but that sounds like a really fantastic use of suspense in music!! Thanks for sharing and glad you enjoyed it. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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