C&B Notes

The Shepard Tone

In Dunkirk, the film’s director, Christopher Nolan, deployed an audio effect called a Shepard tone to help drive a feeling of ever-increasing intensity throughout the movie.

Guerrasio: The scores in your movies are always so memorable, how did the second hand on a clock ticking theme come to you, and how did that evolve with your composer Hans Zimmer?

Nolan: The screenplay had been written according to musical principals.  There’s an audio illusion, if you will, in music called a “Shepard tone” and with my composer David Julyan on “The Prestige” we explored that and based a lot of the score around that.  And it’s an illusion where there’s a continuing ascension of tone.  It’s a corkscrew effect.  It’s always going up and up and up but it never goes outside of its range.  And I wrote the script according to that principle.  I interwove the three timelines in such a way that there’s a continual feeling of intensity.  Increasing intensity.  So I wanted to build the music on similar mathematical principals.  Very early on I sent Hans a recording that I made of a watch that I own with a particularly insistent ticking and we started to build the track out of that sound and then working from that sound we built the music as we built the picture cut.  So there’s a fusion of music and sound effects and picture that we’ve never been able to achieve before.

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