We review the characteristic aspects of modulated crystals from the point of view of inelastic neutron scattering. We discuss the phenomenological Landau theory of the normal-to-incommensurate displacive instability and its predictions concerning the fluctuation spectrum of the modulated phase. General results on the form of the normal-mode eigenvectors and on the inelastic scattering channels through which they couple to the probe are established using the superspace approach. We illustrate these results on a simple discrete model symmetry and we review available inelastic neutron scattering data on several displacively modulated compounds. (author) 21 figs., 73 refs.