From the Music Genome Project: The Anatomy of A Scary Soundtrack

It’s a familiar scene: lights low, popcorn in hand, you hear something; your heart begins to race, your brow sweats, you grip into the armrest of the plush theater seat. The knife-wielding psychopath finally bursts into the scene, accompanied by a dissonant musical crescendo.

While most film composers probably do not have a clinical understanding of the human brain, the great ones have figured out how to manipulate our most primitive fight or flight responses. Paired with just the right visuals certain sounds and pitch combinations can involuntarily cause us to experience physical reactions that one would expect in moments of real life stress. In the spirit of Halloween, we thought we’d take a look at some of the musical devices that are used in scary movies to elicit the fear response.

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Mastering the art of suspense is the first key to creating a scary soundtrack. When used in the right context, music can create a psychological state of dread and set the listener up for the inevitable startle effect. Avoiding melody altogether, instead relying on long tones or using short, repetitive melodic fragments can lead the listener to feel anxious. John Williams‘ theme to Jaws, with its famous two note motif is a perfect example, as is the theme to the Halloween films, which features a looping, ten note pattern that keeps listeners in a state of anticipation. (A little horror movie trivia: John Carpenter, who directed the Halloween movies, also wrote the theme)

It’s almost universal that scary soundtracks rely on minor keys, but perhaps even more important is the choice of sounds, or timbres. Composers often use what are known as “non-linear” sounds to create moods and produce negative emotional responses in listeners. The term “non-linear” refers to any sort of scratchy, distorted, or irregular sounds. It’s thought that the emotional response in humans is rooted in the distress cries of young animals; we’re literally programmed to respond to certain sounds with a stress response. Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind‘s theme for The Shining is peppered with non-linear sounds, including fuzzed-out bass synth tones, and a variety of creepy, non-pitched wind effects. Using certain non-traditional techniques, string players can create all sorts of unsettling non-linear sounds with their instrument, including the classic “nails on a chalkboard” screech.

And of course, no discussion of scary music would be complete without touching on dissonance. Dissonance occurs when multiple pitches clash in a very displeasing, non-harmonious way. It’s often referred to as harmonic “tension”. The shower scene from Psycho is perhaps the most famous example of this device. Bernard Herrmann’s famous score features high-pitched strings in close, dissonant and disturbing pitch combinations.

I encourage you to check out our Spooky Symphonies station and all of our other Halloween themed stations. Whether you’re carving pumpkins with the kids, looking for a creepy soundtrack for doling out candy, or throwing a raging Halloween party, we’ve got something for everyone.

Happy Halloween!

Steve Hogan

Music Analyst

One thought on “From the Music Genome Project: The Anatomy of A Scary Soundtrack

  1. Steve, it’s so interesting that everyone knows their favorite scary movies but to state their favorite #scarymoviemusic is so difficult. I’ve been asking my favorite indie singers on Twitter this question. What is your most favorite #scarymoviemusic? This is my favorite http://tinyurl.com/26v3979 What’s your favorite? Drew @SomaFM_Radio

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