Top 10- Tense Moving Music

Time for another Top 10!

And hey, since I love music so much, I’m going to continue until I exhaust my obscenely specific categories. Today I’d like to cover what I can only describe for myself as Tense Moving music.

There’s a lot of tense music that happens in movies and tv shows and games. But a lot of the time these are used for fights or chase sequences. That isn’t the type of tense I’m covering today though. For instance, Inception has an incredibly tense soundtrack, but it’s nowhere on this list.



The type of tense I’m talking about is both a little more subdued AND a little more weighted. It’s the type of tense that often comes at a turning point in a movie, when a character makes a big decision or realizes something terrible is happening. In other words, more often than not, it’s a character driven tense.

It’s the tense that has me holding my breath, that moves me and sweeps me up in the character’s emotional state. And I eat it up every single time. At any rate, when I’m writing these types of scenes, I have a playlist of these types of songs playing. So I figured I’d share it with you!

So here are my Top 10…actually you know what? This list was tough. I’m adding in one more. Eleven. This is my Top 11 tense moving songs.

11. Mulan’s Decision (Synthesized version)- Mulan- composed by Jerry Goldsmith

Here’s one you can’t buy on Itunes. When I first saw Mulan (which I still love despite the stereotypicalness of it all) the scene that grabbed me the most and still does to this day was Mulan’s decision to take her father’s place in the war and disguise herself as a man. It’s done with no dialogue, but it doesn’t need to be. You can see the anguish on her face as she watches her feeble father, the anguish turning to realization, the realization turning to grim determination and finally the montage of the transformation. It’s a powerful moment, and it’s made even more so by the equally tense but determined soundtrack. Upon hearing this I immediately downloaded the soundtrack.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered that the version I heard in the movie was a far cry from what was on the official soundtrack. Instead of the subtle, intimate synthesized tones, I was given a far more bombastic epic piece complete with war drums and a far more positive and patriotic feel. It wasn’t that it was bad, far from it, but it wasn’t the piece I had fallen in love with. It’s one of the few times I’ve actually found synthesizer to be effective. It was still just as tense, but also felt more private and intimate. So I looked it up on youtube and have included it here! I love you youtube.

10. Death Smiles At Us All- More Music from Gladiator- Composed by Hans Zimmer

Why look! You won’t even find this one in the movie! Before Gladiator was a joke, it was actually a huge hit and people went to it in droves. It was popular enough in fact for a SECOND soundtrack to be released, consisting of music that that for the most part never made it into the film.

This was one of those pieces. As you can hear, they included dialogue from the film and when I hear it I can’t help but think I actually prefer this piece to the one that ended up in the final cut. It really reflects the battle of wits that’s going on and the danger of the situation. It’s one that both treads carefully and plows forward. When I listen to this, I actually imagine my characters hiding and eavesdropping on a conversation and trying not to be noticed. At the end, even though nothing much happens, even without the dialogue, you can feel that some sort of battle has been one and not one sword had to be drawn. Awesome.

9. Catherine’s Freedom- Riven- Composed by Robyn Miller

When I was whittling down the list of songs, I actually had to eliminate three Myst songs mostly because I do try and spread these out fairly evenly and keep it to one piece per movie/game. I ended up settling on Catherine’s Freedom because. There were other great choices but this one of the only musical scores that makes you feel like “Holy crap, things are getting REAL now”.

The character that you’ve been seeking the entire game is suddenly right in front of you. After fifteen hours of stumbling around madly clicking buttons and riding minecarts, things are finally coming to a head and oh man, it’s tense. And even though it’s an adventure game and you know you have all the time in the world to move to the end, it feels as though you have absolutely no time at all. That’s not just the mark of a great game, it’s the mark of some great music and I still listen to it.

8. Opposites Attract- Black Swan- composed by Clint Mansell

This movie about a ballerina trying to be perfect is one big ball of tense. There is never a moment in it, NEVER, where you can rest and calm down. That’s intentional of course and once again the music is also a huge contributing factor to that uncomfortable “I’m going crazy” feeling. Clint Mansell is one of the masters of tense in my opinion, and it was an absolute crime that the score was not nominated for an Oscar (the reason being is because much of the score is actually Swan Lake being played backwards, so it wasn’t considered original).

When I listen to this, I don’t just see the scene in the film. I really get the sense that someone is both letting loose and completely losing it at the same time. This comes fairly late in the film, and there is a ton of build up to this moment. It’s a moment of rebellion, but at no point in this score does that rebellion ever feel freeing. It’s a great “I’m going crazy” piece and as an actor, I very much relate to it.

7. The Pursuit- One Hour Photo composed by Reinhold Heil

I can’t believe I almost missed this one. I searched high and wide for this one when it first came out but it was NOWHERE. Finally years later after invention of Itunes I tracked it down and bought it.

I bet you barely even remember this movie existed! The movie itself was alright, definitely disturbing and tragic and proof again that Robin Williams CAN act outside of his goofy man persona. One Hour Photo is about a man who works in a photo centre who lives vicariously through the families who bring in their film. He keeps copies of their treasured moments for himself and fantasizes about being a part of it. The more he fantasizes, the more he stalks and you just know that at some point the jenga tower that is his sanity is going to come toppling down. What results is a fantastic musical piece that feels desperate, tense and dangerous. It’s one that I go back to often when I’m imagining scenes to write.

6. Chevalier de Sangriel- Davinci Code- composed by Hans Zimmer

You know what? I haven’t seen this movie. I’ve only heard this music, and I completely fell in love. From what I’ve heard, this comes in at the end of the film, and I get the sense just from listening that something big is happening, that things will never be the same again. Maybe it’s a montage, maybe there’s a weighted monologue being narrated over that montage, maybe it’s just the end credits. Whatever it is, I love the music.

5. A Narnia Lullaby- Chronicles of Narnia- composed by Harry Gregson-Williams

The Chronicles of Narnia is one of my favourite book series. Yes, there are flaws in it (why Susan, WHYYYYY) but it was one of my first exposures to fantasy and truth be told I never clued into the Christian overtones until I was almost university age. My favourite character was always Lucy, and my favourite relationship was between her and Mr. Tumnus. YES, seen from a certain light it can be disturbing (adult male guy luring a small child into his home to abduct her) but really, I like to think it’s a pretty harmless friendship.

Well, apart from that first meeting of course. I’ve seen both the BBC version and the Disney film version of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe and I have to say, the film version was a great example of showing how Tumnus was both charmed by Lucy but understood his duty at the same time. As he plays the song for her, it sounds somewhat creepy and only grows moreso from there. There’s a great build from somewhat innocent creepy sounding lullaby (seriously…it’s creepy) into full on dangerous situation.

4. Justin Calls Iris- Carnivale- composed by Jeff Beal

I love Carnivale. It’s one of my favourite tv shows (sadly cancelled tv shows) of all time. It was basically an urban fantasy (well…an urban fantasy set in the 30’s) complete with a creepy atmosphere, weird magic and incredibly vague and abstract dialogue.

It also boasted some amazing characters including one of my favourite villains, Father Justin. The great thing about him is that even though you know right from the get go that he is the villain of the series, he is not aware of this fact. His character journey is compelling and tragic, and one of the best scenes in the entire series for me and the best tense pieces I’ve ever heard is when he calls his sister after learning something of his past. It’s fantastic, it’s haunting, it’s tense and you get a sense of just how things will never be the same for these characters again. It’s one of the best “Hooolly CRAP!” moments and one I relive over and over again through the music.

3. Wolsey Commits Suicide- Tudors Season 1- Composed by Trevor Morris

I would say that the title of this song is a spoiler, except I’m not counting it because in fact, the real Wolsey did not actually commit suicide. The Tudors may be pretty hysterically inaccurate when it comes to its treatment of history and the hotness of Henry VIII (somehow they found a way to make him sleeveless in 50% of the scenes) but man, did it have some great musical pieces.

What I love most about this one is the build. It’s a pretty long build up to a pretty dramatic payoff. I considered putting this one (or it’s shorter version) in a more romantic category but I can’t shake the intensity that I feel when I listen to this piece. I’m pretty sure I listen to it almost every day still and the very dramatic play I have going in my head is often set to this music. Plus…it’s Celtic sounding! So of course I’m going to love it.

2. Gina Escapes- Battlestar Galactica Season 2 composed by Bear McCreary

Okay, so my #2 choice sounds an awful lot like my #1 choice but I don’t care. This is such a small moment in Battlestar Galactica, one that people probably barely remember considering some of the other events that occur in the show but it’s a moment that I remembered forever. The acting, the pacing, the music, all of it came together for a very intense and insane moment that left me breathless.

As for the song itself, it’s one that’s barely keeping itself contained until the very end. You can just hear the notes trying to escape into full on crazy mode. There were other contenders for the Battlestar Galactica slot on this list, but if we’re going by the sheer amount of times I listen to the song, the others didn’t even stand a chance against this one.

1. In the House, in a Heartbeat- 28 Days Later composed by John Murphey

28 Days Later is a pretty tense but actually also pretty quiet movie. There are a couple of tense, big emotional moments here and there but for the most part it’s happy to be British and have a slow, quiet pace that explores the lives of people surviving the zombie apocalypse.

Oh, until the last half hour or so when things start to go truly nuts. Then there’s the last ten minutes where things go COMPLETELY CRAZY. This isn’t just one of my favourite songs, this is one of my favourite scenes in any movie ever. The build-up to this scene is brilliant. The build-up DURING the scene is brilliant. It is tense and haunting and a huge pay off to what was otherwise a pretty standard zombie film. I am actually rarely scared during a zombie film. I was scared during this one. And the music reflects that perfectly. Gina Escapes was great, but this piece was my first love and had a much longer, tense build-up that will forever mark it as the best for me.

So how about the rest of you? What are some of your favourite tense moments in music?


Posted on September 13, 2013, in Top 10 and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. I am so glad you included the 28 Days Later soundtrack. The whole thing is quite beautiful, but there are a few tracks that do an excellent job of making a scene feel super creepy with bizarre elongated ethereal tones that feel like nails on a chalk board, to hard, pulse pounding beats and made the end to that film utterly tense and totally insane.

    It bugs me to this day when I can hear some of the tracks for this movie used in other movies and TV shows.

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