In a fascinating video essay for Quartz, film and television reporter Adam Epstein explains exactly why the the “Drone of Dread”, that a sustained, discordant, whining pitch from either end of the sound spectrum readily fills viewers of suspenseful films with anxiety, unrest and an altogether sense of impending doom.
When you hear this sound something bad is probably about to happen. This sound is what TV Tropes calls the Drone of Dread. …How composers create the Drone of Dread can vary. But some version of it is used in almost every thriller, horror movie, or suspenseful drama. …It’s a sound of dread and that is something that I think triggers fear in all kinds of creatures. And the dread that the drone represents: our real life anxieties, rendered through sound.
Epstein also talked about how sound technicians utilize this tool, which has been made all the more accessible with modern technology and how the sound in films tend to match societal anxieties.
The drone tends to pop up most often in films during moments of great global anxiety and unrest. ‘Space Odyssey’, for instance, came out at the height of the space race, when the world was blanketed in anxiety about new technology that could take over—or destroy—civilization. …And more recently, the drone is getting at our deeper anxieties, in a society dominated by technology, and questions of loneliness and self worth.