Sound and Silence: Shaping the Mood

Someone shrieks. A parent scoops up a child and flees. Gazes swivel skyward as a sudden crashing sound shatters the brittle quiet. The thumps and thuds of hurrying feet sound a timpani beat on the stairs.

What is this? The aftermath of a horrible crime? Fear engendered by a natural disaster?

No. This is a three-year-old’s birthday party that I recently attended. Taken out of context, the sights and sounds above have a veneer of tension and horror. (Perhaps the notion of a three-year-old’s birthday party fills you with horror now.)


When a bunch of small children congregate in one space, you might imagine you’re in a war zone when you catalogue the amount of spillage, breakage, and yell-age (not a real word, but appropriate) taking place. Somehow seven small children can seem like 30, especially when they’re sugared up.

Actually, the most eerie sound at the party was the sudden onslaught of quiet. All of the children were upstairs in one child’s bedroom being very quiet. The silence sent every parent rushing up the stairs to see what was going on.

Since I was in charge of games at this party, I was privy to the most sounds: shrieks, protests (“I didn’t get a turrrrrrrrrrrrrrrn”), and questions. (“Where’s my baaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaalllllll?”) I wondered what the neighbors thought of all of the sounds coming from this place.

Expectations factor into how sounds are received. Because we expect a bunch of kids ranging in age from 2 to 7 to be loud when they congregate, screams aren’t as ominous as they would seem coming from a crowd of adults at a non-sporting event. Therefore, our heart rates remain even when we hear them, unless we recognize the switch in a child’s tone (from excited to upset).

violin1The birthday party reminds me of something to which I need to pay more attention in my writing: sounds and their effect on a listener. Consider the way sounds shape our reaction to scenes in films and shows. We’ve all seen horror movies where high- or low-pitched instruments are the signal that something awful is going to happen. At the Moving Image Education website, I found a quote that encapsulates this experience:

Pitch can greatly affect audience response: a low rumbling sound might imply menace, while a high, sustained note might create tension.

If you’ve got time and don’t scare easily, you can watch one of the most famous scenes in cinematic history—the shower scene from Psycho (1960), one of director Alfred Hitchcock’s most famous films. (Seems a lot tamer than movies today.) Listen to the music and how it affects the mood of the scene.

If you watched the scene or remember it from the past, did you notice the quiet at the beginning? That aspect makes the murder all the more jarring.

In a book, an author has to work hard to help a reader correctly interpret the mood. For descriptions of sounds, we have to rely on figurative language and other well-chosen words to create a frame of reference for the reader, since he or she can only “hear” through his/her imagination. (For example: “I said, no!” Jessica’s “no” sliced the air like a knife.)

I usually look at the behind-the-scenes documentaries of shows like Clone Wars or movies like The Lord of the Rings to learn what sound engineers do to create sounds that add to our experience of the media. A great online resource for the use of sounds to convey mood is the article, “Change The Sound, Change The Mood,” at NHPR (New Hampshire Public Radio). Click here for that article. If you have time, check out the videos that show how the mood of well-known movie trailers drastically changed as the music used in them changed. (The revised Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory trailer made me laugh out loud. The boat ride is key.)


The boat ride from Willy Wonka

How has a sound affected your mood lately? How do you use sound in your writing to heighten the mood? What book or poem have you read recently where the descriptions of sounds made the text even more vivid?

Birthday hats from Violin from Willy Wonka boat ride gif from

56 thoughts on “Sound and Silence: Shaping the Mood

  1. This reminds me of last year when we were rehearsing our production of the Crucible at our director’s house, which is a small flat in a very large apartment complex. God knows what the neighbours were thinking when I (as Abigail) was yelling at John Proctor and he was threatening me with whipping.

    I have to admit, sound is probably one thing I forget in writing. I usually make an effort to describe sights in more detail, and often will include something like smell, but other senses sometimes get missed.

    I recently psyched (pun unintended) myself up to watching Psycho recently, after refusing to for years and years because of how easily I scare. But then after all the anticipation, it was a little anticlimactic.

    • I know, right? I used to watch Psycho on TV when I was a kid. I was shocked to discover that it was rated R. Many PG-13 movies have much more violence and gore.

  2. I love how you opened the post with descriptions that indeed sound ominous, but turned out to be the noises of a pre-schooler’s birthday party. It reminded me of the importance of context in writing. After all, we writers can’t use strings or drums to signify upcoming drama. I’ve always noticed how adept you are at using sound in your stories. I remember that you inspired me to write a blog post about it a while ago 🙂

    • Thanks, Laura. I probably should have been a percussionist. I love sounds and how they change the mood. I guess that’s why the Hans Zimmer scores are among my favorites. Such wonderfully rich sounds.

  3. My mind immediately thought of ‘Peter and the Wolf’ where each character is a different instrument. My parents had it on a cassette tape when I was a kid, so I listened to it while following along in a book. There was a Disney cartoon of it too. I really remember how the Duck (oboe) sounded when it was trapped in the wolf. The pace and volume were very somber, which painted a detailed picture in my mind.

  4. Such great points! I know I need to think more about sounds as I’m trying to bring a scene to life–especially when I’m looking for a way to offer a beat in dialogue. Thanks for this post!

  5. When a group of three-year-olds are quiet, that’s definitely cause for concern. 🙂 Forty years after seeing the movie Jaws, at the theater, I’ll never forget the sound of the approaching shark.
    I definitely need to incorporate more sound into my writing.

  6. Wonderful examples of expanding on sound, Linda. Sound definitely adds dimension to what we read ~ from the crunch of leaves to the slurp of Asian noodles.

  7. In their early courting days, my parents went to the cinema to watch Psycho, and at that shower scene my Mum screamed the place down. They returned to watch it a second time-and she did it again!
    I remember reading somewhere that Jaws was shown (perhaps just to actors and crew) without that famous music accompanying it. Then it was re-shown with the score added-and all could feel the transformation.

    • That’s interesting! In that blog post I referenced, composer Hans Zimmer is quoted: “If you talk to any director, they’ll say music is fifty percent of the movie.” So true!

  8. Great post, Linda! You were brave to be in charge of entertainment at the birthday party, that’s often when things break down! In my experience, it was the parents that made the party worse. I remember a mother yelling at me during my daughter’s party because I had the kids playing musical chair and I had the NERVE to keep one chair missing (as the game is played) and didn’t have a chair for everyone so they wouldn’t be sad! WHAT? Excuse me? Life is not always fair and sometimes we lose! Don’t get me started…LOL.

    I had never given thought to sounds in a story. I love that you pointed that out and can now see how important it is to a story. That scene in Psycho is the reason I always lock my bathroom door when showering! 🙂

    • Thanks, Maria! Your story made me laugh. I can understand wanting to protect your kids. But musical chairs is not a time to try to protect them!!!! Kids need to learn to accept disappointments and triumphs. Musical chairs is where it all starts!

    • True, Phillip. I think that’s why I gravitate toward places like Panera or Corner Bakery where bread is produced. And the sight of chocolate always gets my synapses firing.

  9. Please forgive my absence. I’m bleary-eyed and trying to catch up before I crash into another strange bed. I hope my snoring and shifting don’t keep the neighborhood up all night.

    I’ve never been conscious of how much I write sound. Maybe it’s because my vision isn’t great, but I use sound a ton to describe characters, to depict action and to jump between plot points. I’ve always hoped it’s an ingredient that makes my writing different.

  10. Oh, wonderful, wonderful posting, Kate!
    As I am surrounded by trains and dolls and technology my 2 1/2 year old grandson has to show me how to work, amid all the delightful din of a 5 year old princess, I am particularly cognizant of sound at the moment – and lack of it. 🙂
    One of the scariest movies of its time was Jaws, in large part because of the soundtrack which really built the tension.
    This post brings to mind the hours right after 9/11 and the terror of the World Trade Center. We lived very close to O’Hare Airport at the time, so, the roar of airplanes overhead was a routine occurrence, often very annoying. On that morning, we suddenly became aware of the total silence in air traffic. It was eerie in the midst of the horror.

    • Such delightful family sounds, Penny.
      Yes, 9/11 was quite a horrible day. I remember how vivid the sights and sounds were. So awful. And yes, I recall the silence without the air traffic. Such an awful hush.

    • When I was a kid, I used to wonder why my parents always knew my brothers and I were up to something. I didn’t realize then that our quiet moments roused their suspicion.

  11. I like to listen to old radio shows. Sound and words were all they had to convey their stories. It’s really better for learning how to write description of action sequences than using sound, but sometimes one of the sillier shows will throw in the wrong sound for kicks and you can hear how big a difference it makes to the way the scene goes. Or I’ll watch behin-thescenes things where the music is taken out and note how much less impact the scene has. Granted, a lot of them also lack much of the visual tweakage that gives the overall effect of the scene, but until all of that, sound included, comes together, the actors often just look silly.

    • On Saturdays years ago, I used to listen to a station that broadcasted old radio shows like The Shadow. So I know what you mean about radio programs and how they use sound to help us tap into the worlds described. I also used to listen to Garrison Keillor and his A Prairie Home Companion programs. Hilarious!

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