Tom Garner is a postdoctorate in Denmark who has written a very readable article about his research in “sonic emotioneering”. Put another way, how to scare the pants of the audience with sound design:
“Of the research that has been conducted, several objective acoustic characteristics (that are expected to be effective irrespective of other factors/contexts) include:
- Rapid onset/offset (tempo): Increases anxiety by way of connoting urgency.
- Source delocalisation: Obscuring the source’s location via masking with other sounds, moving a sound quickly and irregularly through a 3D sound environment and/or, utilising reverberation to generate reflections that disorientate the listener.
- Extreme frequency: creating high screeches or low rumbles that reliably connote threat of an unknown nature.
- Defamiliarisation through distortion: taking a sound that is characteristically comforting and distorting or blending it with other sounds to decontextualize the original sound and create a sense of the uncanny and unease.
- Immediate attack: Sudden shifting from silence/low volume to high volume.
- Extended acousmatic attack: Slowly increasing volume but with no visible source, suggesting an unseen threat is approaching.”
Some of these techniques seem applicable to scoring and some do not. What’s very interesting is the importance of a 3D sound environment, which brings to mind the importance of producing music in surround sound (and just like with visual 3D, it’s a good idea to think using surround starting in the earliest sketching phase, not just at the end during the mix).
The idea of disorientation is powerful. Common horror techniques might start with ambiguous ambient pads, slowly introduce dissonance to amp up tension, then launch a sudden attack of extreme rhythm and dissonance.
This paper inspires to work more with auditory distortion. Perhaps you can giving the audience a familiar musical theme – it doesn’t have to be creepy – to work as their comfort zone. As the characters descend into isolation and danger, the music disorients the audience by subtle skewing – using pan, timbre, reverberation and EQ, and perhaps lessening reliance on dissonance and bizarre sound design.
What comes to mind is a piece I’ve posted before by Giacinto Scelsi, the Italian composer whose Hymnos is based on a single note, which evolves with extreme precision throughout the orchestra. While I find the piece itself to be very beautiful (and not at all terrifying), you can imagine how this music in an interactive environment could be used to signal varying levels of danger and peril in the game environment.
Here it is, in