There’s nothing like getting a raucous scare from music. Unless it’s doubled with a good scare in a movie. For me it really hasn’t gotten much creepier than The Shining‘s opening scene. And it all starts with the incredibly sinister music of the brilliant Wendy Carlos. An otherwise lovely scenic drive through the mountains is made ominous with Wendy’s creeeeepy score, instantly foretelling the nightmare that will descend in the next few hours. This post is about scary music in drama, all of which can be heard on the jarring classical mixtape Haunt Your House, created by Russell Johnson and me here at Pandora …
Wendy carlos.jpgFrom Weird to Creepy: Switched From Bach
Analog synth sounds are famous for being weird, so it’s barely a skip over to ‘creepy’ for them. Wendy Carlos had already created a smorgasbord of curious Moog synth sounds on her landmark, genre-bending album Switched-on Bach. Apparently back in ’68, classical had to be Mooged in order to really sell: An all-Moog Bach album, it was the first classical LP to go platinum. Bach’s style is often dominated by counterpoint: the compositional technique of having 2 or more melodic lines going at once. If instruments were voices, a Bach fugue would sound like 2-5 people blabbering away at the same time. So hearing a gaggle of funky Moog sounds executing a contrapuntal Bach piece makes for some very entertaining, often silly musical conversations. She also Mooged Beethoven in A Clockwork Orange.
From there it was just a hop over to full-blown creepland:

For The Shining‘s opening theme Wendy basically took her arsenal of Moog, put them to use in a minor key, quoted one of the all-time scary ancient melodies “Dies Irae” (you know this melody- it’s been set countless times for dark effect), added some unsettling percussion sounds, and viola! She rolls out the blood-drenched carpet for Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson’s character) while an unsuspecting Shelley Duvall makes the long drive.
Let The Weird Do The Work
Carrie Fire-1.jpg
I imagine Wendy Carlos toiled to find just the right synth sounds to achieve her desired creep factor. But disturbing music can seem effortless to create: witness the soundtrack to the classic 1976 psychotic thriller Carrie. The fire roasting the school is properly demonized with a few simple, very crunchy synth layers on School in Flames, the first of 2 Carrie tracks on the mixtape. And on At The Prom, the strings are trying to stay pretty (and normal) when, finally, they veer off the rails and snap into dissonance, obviously at the moment Carrie’s switch is flipped into mass murder-mode.
Rite juice.jpgWeird Old Music
In summary, and as usual, strange is defined by the unusual: weird sounds (synths), and weird harmony; i.e. dissonance. Before movies, when ballets and operas carried a lot of the dramatic programming of the day, disturbance was defined with dissonance. At the notorious premiere of the composer Igor Stravinsky’s 1913 ballet The Rite Of Spring, the audience threw a full fit- and why? Coupled with the horrific plot of a young girl who dances herself to death for a sacrifice, it was probably the rather unprecedented magnitude of strangeness they witnessed in the music. In describing the work’s harmony, Leonard Bernstein said that even by today’s standards it’s “…got the best dissonances anyone ever thought up”. It also has, he continued, “the best asymmetries and polytonalities and polyrhythms”: their cultural foreignness to the audience at the time probably fueled the agitation.
And then it’s got the bassoon (hear it featured by Prokofiev here). Before ‘weird’ was defined by synthesizers & electronics, people relied on the unusual use of acoustic sounds. Albeit beautiful in other circumstances, the bassoon is an instrument with tremendous strange-potential- Stravinsky employed its funny-sounding low register prominently in Rite‘s score. So the combination of all-of-the-above in full glory inspired the initial audience to riot- not a bad beginning to a decent horror flick in itself.
To hear these pieces in full, amidst hours more of the dark and disturbing, listen to the curated station (mixtape) Haunt Your House
And to hear a Halloween mixtape that’s loaded with tons of rock, kooky rock, punk, grit, witches, monsters, ghosts, angst and candy, listen to the mixtape Halloween, jointly created by a bunch of staffers here at Pandora.
(music analyst)


  1. devans00
    October 29, 2009 at 1:18pm
    It'd be nice if it was easy to add special stations, like the ones mentioned in the article, to the Pandora One desktop client. Currently, here's what I do when I read about a station online: - I exit out of Pandora One - Click on the link on the link on Pandora, Facebook or Twitter - Wait for one song to start playing - Close the browser window - Restart Pandora One - Click on Stations - Find the new station and select it
  2. Nepente
    October 29, 2009 at 2:05pm
    Michelle, The album Switched-On Bach was released by Walter Carlos in 1968, he later changed sex in 1972, becoming Wendy.
  3. michelle
    October 29, 2009 at 2:06pm
    Devan- I forwarded your email to listener support- they should get back to you soon about it. If you have any other questions about using Pandora, fee to send them to pandora-support@pandora.com. -michelle a.
  4. michelle
    October 29, 2009 at 2:22pm
    Nepente- I thought about this. When searching for the name 'Walter Carlos' as the artist for Switched-On Bach, I almost always got redirected to Wendy Carlos. It also seems that the album has since been re-released under Wendy Carlos, so I decided to go with Wendy as the album's artist name. Thanks for commenting! -michelle a.
  5. mikemost
    October 29, 2009 at 2:45pm
    very nice guys, I too had been working on a couple Halloween stations as Lucia knows (ironically the same format breakdown) One for scaring the other for partying ... "Halloweeny Radio" http://bit.ly/3snKkZ "scare them off your lawn radio" http://bit.ly/3wLAuK
  6. Inez
    October 30, 2009 at 11:12am
    Hi, This is a wonderful 'station', however, I would like to know why you have been playing Christmas music since the summer. I have a theory but can you explain before I jump to negative conclusions. Thank you. Inez
  7. michelle
    October 30, 2009 at 11:32am
    Inez- I forwarded your question to the support crew. Not sure if your issue is that we have holiday music up year-round, or that holiday music is coming up on your non-holiday stations. -michelle a.
  8. Robert LoCicero
    October 30, 2009 at 7:27pm
    Great station and great concept. In 1968 nobody needed to jazz up Bach to make him popular. He always was, is, and always will be popular.
  9. aubre
    October 30, 2009 at 11:07pm
    i read your procedure on music submissions, and was sadly disappointed...i've come across a lot of killer artist through myspace, unsigned artists that i would looove to see in rotation on pandora...is there anyway you could make the process easier for musicians? also, maybe a message board for P members to discuss music and make suggestions?
  10. Jay
    October 31, 2009 at 12:33pm
    ok i luv horror movies but that movie sounds like crap. I mean seriously are there no really good horror movies anymore?!!!! What has the world come to?!!

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