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Hans Zimmer’s clever use of the Shepard scale in Dunkirk

posted by Jason Kottke   May 16, 2018

I’ve written before about the Shepard scale and its use by Hans Zimmer in the soundtrack for Dunkirk.

Zimmer and Dunkirk director Christopher Nolan achieved that effect by utilizing an auditory illusion called the Shepard tone, a sound that appears to infinitely rise (or fall) in pitch — the video above refers to it as “a barber’s pole of sound”.

The effect is apparent throughout the soundtrack as a seemingly never-ending crescendo. But as Ed Newton-Rex explains, Zimmer was a bit more clever in the way he used the Shepard scale in the music:

So Zimmer isn’t just using the Shepard scale to build tension. He’s using three simultaneous Shepard scales, on three different timescales, to build tension in three storylines that are moving at different paces. The bottom part represents the week of the soldiers; the middle part the day of the men on the boat; and the top part the hour of the pilots. All start in different places, but build in intensity to the same point.

In short, he’s taken the idea of the Shepard scale, and applied it to the unique structure of Dunkirk.