There are famous sounds through history that make the hair on our arms stand up: the “dun dun dun dun” of John Williams’ famous Jaws theme or the eerie keys of John Carpenter’s Halloween track (fun fact: the director composed the song in an hour). These two masters used music to amplify the horror of those films and leave viewers in a state of psychological terror. We’re shuddering just thinking about it.
When October rolled around and Halloween decorations went up this year, we got curious about finding what continues to makes the creepiest songs so creepy, and better yet, enlist science to identify the spookiest song of all time.
By using a combination of Pandora’s sophisticated Music Genome Project technology, listener behaviors, and findings from Pandora’s data science team, we collected a trove of data — drawing from over 450 musical attributes — to identify the scariest songs ever.
So what goes into making a song sound quite so sinister? There’s more than you think.
Scary songs use key, tempo and timbre to create tension and manipulate the way the listener interacts with sound. This includes the use of what scientists call “non-linear” sounds, which are generally scratchy, disorganized, and chaotic – like the sound of vocal chords vibrating violently during a blood-curdling scream.
Humans (among other species) are hard-wired to perceive such sounds as life-threatening and trigger a fear response. Pandora’s data science team identified structural and musicological qualities most likely to provoke feelings of fright, including anguished, distraught, eerie, harsh, menacing, spooky, tense, anxious, and volatile – and scored each song against these traits.
Common attributes of the scariest songs included being in a minor key (we’ll get into the exceptions below), containing distortion and sound effects, having an aversion to melody, and using exotic intervals and time changes.
See below as we reveal the 10 scariest songs of all time…if you dare!
- This song makes use of distorted “non-linear” instrument timbres and effects, which humans are programmed to find distressing. This unsettled mood is amplified by the terrifying sound of the alternating hushed/screaming vocals. Melodically, this song makes use of an exotic-sounding scale which features a major third, but a flat second scale degree, which gives an uneasy, dissonant quality.
- Like “The Becoming,” this song uses distorted, “non-linear” sound along with aggressive vocal attitude, and it’s in a minor key, which is most often perceived as a “dark” sound.
- The mood of this song is dominated by the tonal quality of the instruments, including distorted riffs and scratchy guitar solos. There is a high level of dissonance between the chromatically descending guitar line and the vocal, which is not a melody exactly, but a series of monotonic, almost unrelated pitches that clash with the accompaniment. The lo-fi aesthetic and anguished vocal delivery help make for a uniquely unsettling experience.
- The combination of lo-fi production, synth pads, and an exaggerated reverb effect in this song creates a menacing, claustrophobic quality. It finishes with an intense wall of sound, which along with the staccato and insistent bass guitar rhythm makes this a truly anxiety-provoking track.
- Due to its sheer sonic aggression, this song is a prime example of the death metal genre: it’s loud and distorted, with a fast tempo, technically proficient drumming and guitar shredding, and is rhythmically complex with shifting tempos and syncopated beats. The vocals are an extreme and gritty example of the “death-metal growl.” And lyrically, it’s entirely confrontational and threatening.
- Similar to Lamb Of God in its aggressive, confrontational vocal attitude, Tool’s “Ænima” also features loud and distorted tones throughout, but there’s some dynamic range too, with quieter, more drone-like stretches.
- Like many Nirvana songs, this song is darkly melodic but defies pop conventions. The harmonic progression is difficult to pin down as major or minor, but there is an unmistakably menacing quality to the music. There is a dissonance between the vocal melody and instrumental parts that is disorienting and can feel disturbing to the listener. It makes use of heavy, distorted tones, but also features more quiet, brooding stretches.
- This song relies on loud, distorted timbres and “non-linear” tones to create an aggressive, frightening effect that will send you straight to the dungeon of despair! The relentless pounding of the drums and the deep, sludgy doom-guitar riffs give this song a truly menacing and diabolical feel.
- This song has a creepy combination of heavier distorted tones alongside more ambient and suspenseful ones, with a melody that makes use of an exotic-sounding scale that adds to its frightful feel. The first two vocal notes you hear form a “diminished 5th,” a musical interval nicknamed “Diabolus in musica,” or “The Devil in music,” which has been used for its dissonant, fear-inducing quality since the 18th century.
- “Eternal Refuge” is another classic death metal entry: extreme in its volume and distortion and featuring the genre’s infamous “cookie monster” growl. We dare you play this one at home alone in the dark.