Hello Composers, Mike here! Do you want to learn how to compose dark music? Music that has a character of: Tension, Ominous, Evil and Darkness. Music suitable for a dark tension scene in a movie, TV series, or video game.
I have made a list of practical tips which I consider to be some of the most important aspects of dark music. Let’s listen to some live examples first. Get ready to tremble of fear!
Mikael Baggström – Escape The Silence
I imagined a person waking up in some dark catacombs of pure evil. Trapped like a rat in a maze, trying to get out. But darkness is all around, with monsters and demons lurking in every corner. And the dark lord himself is approaching. The only thing left to do is to raise your sword, bury your fears, and fight your way out!
I used lots of dark tension and atmospheric sounds, and even recorded and sound designed some evil breathing and growling sounds myself. The tonal balance is on the darker range in register for most parts in the composition. The harmony is basically revolving around Gm to Ebm, which with the double chromatic steps adds a lot of dark tension.
I chose to have the mix very open and dynamic to leave room for air and ambience, except in the final part where the battle with the dark lord is approaching. And yes…the hero failed, and darkness prevailed. Not all stories end happy.
David Michael Tardy – The Quickening
David’s composition has a truly creepy undertone, starting with a dark ambience and slow pulse. Then some twisted stingers and hollow haunting doppler-effect type sounds. The build-up of intense dark power starts in the middle, and you better be prepared to tremble!
Here’s David’s description: My intention was to create a dark, ominous and tense mood. I thought of an evil creature or entity, finally revealing itself in plain view to its victim(s) or perhaps hunting the evil creature and finally stumbling upon its lair.
Brian Freeland – Conquerer Of Worlds
This composition by Brian Freeland has a really dark vs action type of vibe, starting with a build up power sound on big bold brass and strings, then goes into fast rhythmic parts dancing together and interjected with powerful sustained notes for harmonies and the main melody.
Brian’s description: I’ve been trying to expand my orchestration skills and break out of my shell. So this is a John Williams inspired piece that I feel captures an epic space battle, very dark but action packed and intense.
James Lebreton – Hurry-Scurry
This piece has a more intense dark vibe, with the percussion, ostinato strings and stabs driving the pulse and energy.
James’ description: The scene is inspired by the Beast of Gevaudan, the name associated with the man-eating gray wolf, dog or werewolf (!) that terrorized the former province of Gévaudan. The music try to capture the danger of a werewolf attack while keeping sort of a melodic fantasy mood. The staccatos ostinatos are crafted to remember the speed of the attack and the running part of the victim flight.
How to write Dark Music
I want to give you my personal practical tips for writing dark music, regardless of style. These are, what I consider, fundamental guidelines.
Tip 1 – Dissonance
With all types of dark music where you want tension, dissonance is your friend. Dissonant intervals in solo lines, as well as dissonant harmonies and chords. Even unexpected chord changes will work well.
Dissonance in the lower registers will prove a sense of evil and power. While dissonance in the higher registers will give that eerie, creepy tension vibe.
Tip 2 – Glitches
Glitch-type effects have been very common in electronic music styles. But you can in fact use them for dark cinematic music too. Because when something glitches, it makes you feel uneasy.
It can be anything from classic stuttering, to crazy distorted glitch effects. But it can also be they way you write your parts. Strange syncopated rhythms, unexpected accents, twisted grooves that use random silent parts to create a glitch effect.
Tip 3 – Noisescapes
By noisescapes I mean non-tonal soundscapes, background textures and ambience sounds. For example: the sound of rain, waves, pipes creaking, steam pressure, industrial machines rumbling and so on.
It can also be noisescapes created by instruments, such as bowing various objects. For example the classic bowed cymbal or gong is extremely useful for adding tension in the high register.
Noisescapes can be both natural recordings or synthesized atmospheres. Even a mix of both, which we can call hybrid noisescapes, based on sound design. In dark music these kinds of background textures work incredibly well.
Even using several different ones that you layer together can create an overall atmosphere that truly brings out that dark, brooding mood in your music.
Tip 4 – Soundscapes
I differentiate soundscapes and noisescapes as, tonal vs non-tonal. Soundscapes can be anything from a rich synth pad, to a dark drone sound.
You can have them evolve with movement in the sustained sound, or even glitches with stuttering. Or perhaps a subtle pulse synced to the groove of your music.
Soundscapes can be used as a background carpet of sound, that sets both the overall mood as well as the tonal centre and harmonic structure.
Tip 5 – Techniques for Tension
The most common articulations to add tension are: tremolos and semitone trills. Both of these playing techniques can be performed on many different instruments, but strings will be the most common in most cases.
Other performance techniques that are great for dark music and tension are: clusters, rips, flutter tonguing and all kinds of weird articulations and orchestral effects.
Now take Action!
Compose Dark Music
I always recommend you to take action, to learn from doing, experimenting, and creating. So go ahead and compose a new track in the style of “Dark Music”. Good luck, and have fun composing music with a focus on Tension, Ominous, Evil and Darkness! =)
My name is Mikael “Mike” Baggström, and I am a composer, sound designer, artist, video creator, coffee lover, and true nerd…
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