Dunkirk’s Shepard Tone

Film is illusion, both on a visual and on an auditory level. Many video essays tackle visual aspects: they try to explain a director’s visual motifs, they theorize over a film’s compositions and their meaning, they show how VFX were created. Signature auditory elements (of a film or a filmmaker) however are far less often the subject of video essays.


This is an example to the contrary. In this short, explanatory piece a particular auditory illusion is tackled. One that plays an important part in the music of Hans Zimmer, and in his score for Dunkirk (2017, Christopher Nolan) in particular. The Shepard Tone is instrumental in creating the aural tension that characterizes many of Zimmer’s soundtracks. This video essay does a great job of explaining the phenomenon and pointing out its use in a bevy of examples. It is sleekly produced, but its well-crafted visuals are always at the service of the point it makes. Hear hear.