Music and Horror: What Makes Music Sound Scary


What is it exactly that makes the music sound so scary? Let’s dive into the theory behind horror scores to uncover why they strike fear.

We’re all familiar with the type of music that plagues horror films. The moment a twisted score starts to play, we know the fate of the on-screen characters isn’t looking too good. But have you ever wondered what it is exactly that makes soundtracks so haunting?

As a composer myself, writing music that makes the audience uncomfortable and has an eerie tone to it is something I thoroughly enjoy. Let’s take a moment to explore the techniques composers use to achieve this particular sound world and how to use these theories to your advantage when adding scores to your own horror film.


The Power of Dissonance

Dissonance refers to a lack of harmony in music. Dissonance in music will make your audience feel uneasy and it helps to create tension and a sense of motion in compositions. Typically, you have Major and Minor tonalities in music. Major commonly provides a positive and happy mood, while minor is associated with the feeling of sadness or darkness.

This is all to do with the Intervals between each of the notes in any given tonality: in a minor key, the notes are lowered, which greatly changes the overall vibe.

Dissonance is a staple technique used in horror soundtracks to elevate that discomfort and fear. This is achieved by two or more tones played together, which don’t sound very pleasant to the ear. In Western Classical Music Theory, the dissonance is usually resolved to lift the tension, but in this case, it’s permanently there, lingering.

An example of dissonance is found in Bobby Krlic’s Soundtrack for the film Midsommar. The soundtrack “Gassed” begins with a long sustained violin note while another enters, moving around the home note in complete dissonance. Jarring right?!


Contrast and Transition

The contrast principle states songs should present opposing ideas as it progresses. Whilst Midsommar has its dark and scary sound world, Bobby Krlic also uses tonalities that sound more hopeful yet still have a disturbing undertone. This is achieved by transitioning between contrasting passages. Towards the end of the film there is both a sense of relief but also sheer disturbance; the music perfectly conveys this.

The piece “Fire Temple” is initially calm, with soft strings playing slow chords. While it has a long build-up, it turns sour with the introduction of tremolo (rapid repetition of notes) and high strings that sound like screams. This blend between two opposite sound worlds leaves a distressing feeling, just like what you see on the screen.


Harsh Textures and Pulsating Rhythms

Musical texture is how the layers of sound are built and how they interact with each other. It’s very similar to how you would feel a tactile object with your hands. The smoothness of a soft blanket is comforting, but the texture of a bed of nails is much less welcoming. This is the same in sound.

The combination of textures includes low drones with eerie whispers of other sounds, thicker chordal textures with harsher sounding chord progressions, and high-pitched instrumental screeches. Many soundtracks will have sudden outbursts to compliment jump scares.

The most famous is Bernard Herrmann’s score for the Shower Scene in Psycho. Not only are the high-pitched strings playing in complete dissonance, but they are playing every note accented, at a loud dynamic, most likely played at the heel of the bow for a grittier and gnarly sound. The constant rhythm imitates the stabbing effect, another way to implement indefinite fear!

One of the more popular compositional techniques used is low drones. The slow and low development gives a dark ambient texture, which contributes to building tension. To further enhance this, putting a pulsating rhythm over the top can also add anticipation and also gives the effect of a heartbeat.

Composers can play around with this idea by altering the rhythm; having an irregular heartbeat rhythm could heighten anxiety, but also keeping a constant rhythm can also do the same. Howard Shore, who composed the score for The Silence Of The Lambs, uses this technique. Not only is the harmonic language scary with its dissonant nature, but the addition of the timpani over the chord sequence highlights the angst of what is happening on screen.

Pulsating rhythm can also be interpreted in the Jaws theme. John Williams composed a staple chromatic motif, alternating between two notes half a step away from each other, gradually accelerating as if a giant shark is about to attack!


Instrumentation

Amongst all the technical musical features already discussed, let’s not forget the choice of instruments. While there are a vast amount of instrumentation choices, a popular choice is the String Family. It offers a very versatile palette of tones, textures, timbres, and dynamics to incite fear. The lower strings (Double Bass and Cello) can play very low rumbling drones, with the ability to build dynamically by adding more pressure to the bow.

The higher strings (Violins and Violas) can play alarming passages, imitate screeches, screams, and even stabs! The use of the bow can change the sound in many ways: playing nearer the heel of the bow for a sharper timbre, playing nearer the bridge for a glass-like sound (known as sul ponticello), and rapidly repeated bow strokes for a quivering sound (known as tremolo).

Not only are acoustic instruments used, but the wonders of music technology have further stretched the possibilities of finding other sounds to create a scary atmosphere. The creation of DAWs (digital audio workstations) allow composers to enhance the listener experience by including more immersive sound worlds. The methods of audio editing have made the composition process much more exciting as creating that horror soundscape with more available parameters can ultimately take the listener into that other world.

Going back to Midsommar, the track “Hålsingland” has this incredible slow pulsating drone, accompanied by sinister waves of sound, which was only made possible through current music technology.

Synthesizers provided a wider range of sounds to explore. John Carpenter, who scored Halloween and The Thing, showcases the synthesizer’s versatility in creating spooky soundtracks. Most recently, Stranger Things have resurrected that early synthesizer sound in the horror scene, not only taking us back to the 80s but still achieving that creepy feel to it.


So, next time when you decide to have a horror movie night, listen out for those dissonant riffs, the jarring textures, and pulsating rhythms, and allow them to inspire the perfect musical theme for your next horror film or short. Study how they move you to feel uncomfortable and how they work within the edit and the story. This will no doubt take your spooky scene to the next level.

If you would like to explore PremiumBeat’s range of Midsommar-inspired music, check out this playlist.

Cover image by jesadaphorn


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