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How That Annoying Drone From Inception Took Over Movie Trailers

There's this weird, droney sound that nearly every action movie seems to employ. But where did it come from?

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Image: Sara

The New Yorker describes the sound as “that low and loud synthesized hum—ominous and brain-addling.” It wasn’t always there, but nearly every action movie now seems to use it. You can get the sound on demand with this handy button, or listen to it here:

You’ve heard it over and over again in trailers, but here’s a taste:

This sound really first showed up in 2010, with Christopher Nolan’s Inception. Here’s the New Yorker again:

By now, this accursed bass drone feels as if it has always been a part of our cinematic lives. Yet its reign of sonic terror has been relatively brief, dating, with a few antecedents, to a string of trailers made for Christopher Nolan’s “Inception,” from 2010. The teaser for the film was released in 2009, and featured music by Mike Zarin. The movie’s third trailer, this time scored by Zach Hemsey, added a playful and clever string element over Zarin’s big booms. Both of these components were then absorbed into the film’s soundtrack, by Hans Zimmer, a composer who, based largely on his work on Nolan’s films in the past decade, probably deserves most of the blame for loosing this particular rock slide into the world.

Vulture has a slideshow of all the movies that use the sound, and a conversation between a French horn, a Basoon, a Trombone, a Tuba and a Timani about the sound:

French horn: Hans Zimmer rolls up with his four Grammys and his Oscar and is all “Just trust me, horns.” We didn’t want to.

Tuba: But then we all started playing.

Trombone: And it was like, blam! Magic!

Bassoon: I knew immediately that we were on to something.

Trombone: It was incredible.

French horn: It was like the first time I saw the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, which I saw shortly after its completion, because the Reniassance.

And here’s a mashup of a ton of Inception horns in movie trailers:

If you believe that movie trailers are a reflection of what people want, then what does this drone say about us? Perhaps the ominous drone is a nod to the inner turmoil of even our flashy action heroes. There’s lots to worry about today, and “those thunderous musical cues seem handed down to remind us that even frivolous popcorn movies aren’t supposed to merely be fun anymore.”

There will be a new movie trailer trope soon enough, and the Inception BRAAAM will fade away like the vuvuzuela (which, actually, makes a pretty similar sound if you think about it). Perhaps our next sound will be perkier, like cats meowing or a tambourine or something. Now might be a good time to send your suggestions to Hans Zimmer.

More from Smithsonian.com:

Ten Movies We Loved From the 2000s
Determining Who Made the Most Movies

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About Rose Eveleth
Rose Eveleth

Rose Eveleth is a writer for Smart News and a producer/designer/ science writer/ animator based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Scientific American, Story Collider, TED-Ed and OnEarth.

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