Christopher Nolan Brought A Unique Sound To Hans Zimmer's Dunkirk Score

The collaboration between Christopher Nolan and composer Hans Zimmer is the stuff of legends. Their working relationship goes back to 2005 when they worked on "Batman Begins." Since then, they've collaborated on films such as "Inception," "Interstellar," and more. Of the scores Zimmer has worked on for Nolan, his score for "Dunkirk" is arguably the most memorable.

Taking place during World War II and specifically focusing on the Dunkirk evacuation, there's a sense of urgency that needed to be captured across the board. In a film with minimal dialogue, the score and sound editing becomes essential in immersing the audience into the world onscreen. Throw in the additional element of war, and there is an emphasis on needing to drive tension into the film's soundscape. Zimmer excels in this with "Dunkirk."

Zimmer doesn't take all the credit, though, for the score. He frequently credits Nolan with what he calls the "closest collaboration I've ever had with a director." How did Nolan come to influence the score? He provided necessary sound samples to the composer and wrote the screenplay specifically with the spine-tingling Shepard tone in mind.

The ticking of the clock

A key element throughout the score for "Dunkirk" is the sound of a ticking clock. At times in the score, the synthesizing effect Zimmer applied to the sound reads like a metronome. It is as if it's keeping both the subjects in the film and the audience in sync, further ramping up the tension as we watch the battle unfold onscreen. Time is fleeting, even more so in war.

So, it comes as no surprise that this concept of time was something that Nolan wanted Zimmer to emphasize in the score. As shared in an interview with The Business Insider, when Nolan handed Zimmer the screenplay, he also gave the composer a recording of a windup pocket watch with a specifically insistent sound. This sound would become the beating heart of "Dunkirk," providing a necessary auditory focal point for the composer and – ultimately – the audience to return to as events unfold onscreen.

The Shepard tone

If anxiety had a sound, it would be the Shepard tone. Consisting of rising and falling tones, it gives the illusion that the sound is ascending when, in actuality, we're hearing a series of notes played on a loop. In a war film like "Dunkirk," it makes sense to utilize the Shepard tone because it heightens the sense of urgency the audience needs to feel as we watch the evacuation unfold. And as it turns out, according to Business Insider, Nolan thought similarly:

"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. Increased intensity. So I wanted to build the music on similar mathematical principles."

While listening to the score, the ebb and flow of the Shepard tone are present throughout the film. It easily increases the anxiety and fear in viewers. It doesn't matter if you know how the actual evacuation went down. The work both Nolan and Zimmer put into the score is a masterclass in how to immerse the audience into the high-intensity realities of war. We'll never know what could have been if Nolan hadn't been so invested in the sound of "Dunkirk." However, given the end result, we don't need to. It's perfect.