Have you ever wondered how composers curate the perfect skin crawling, heart racing, and ‘hiding behind your pillow’ moment in scary movies? Well, I’m about to serenade you with how and why music plays a pivotal role in these films that make you walk slightly faster up the stairs once you have turned the lights off before bed (don’t worry, we’ve all done it).
And if you don’t care about the why, you can skip the next section, I won’t be offended!
From Shivers to Science: Decoding the Mystery of Eerie Sound
The 1st and flattened 5th interval in a diminished triad is a tritone (AKA the Devil’s Interval, so yes, it does exist!)
In a nutshell, the devil's interval just sounds creepy and dissonant. It is used all the time in scary songs. Here's why;
Okay, here is where science and music cross over, so stay with me for this one. It turns out in a two-note chord, each of the separate notes generates a sound wave characterised by its unique wavelength. The harmonious effect emerges when these two sound waves intersect after traversing one or more wavelengths. This intersection engenders a fresh, harmonious pattern.
However, the tritone (Devil's interval) comprises two notes with wavelengths that do not align, meaning their wavelengths are incompatible. Rather than giving us a regular pattern, these discordant notes produce a dissonant sound. This is what makes the sound so uncomfortable, and therefore perfect to freak you out!
Daniel Blumstein (an ethologist and conservation biologist) found that screams in the context of scary films elicit a response in us similar to that of distress calls in animals. They provoke uneasy emotions, and we are inherently conditioned to perceive them as unsettling. Using nonlinear sounds has been a pretty common, or dare I say, essential auditory factor in horror movies for years. So there is your proof it works!
The age-old classical conditioning theory by the psychologist Ivan Pavlov (that one where he teaches dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell) can be associated (no pun intended) also with how humans react to scary films. Following on from nonlinear sounds, it only makes sense that humans have actually learnt to associate certain scary sounds, just from watching scary movies - so we’ve only got ourselves to blame!
If you watch this Shining trailer which replaces all the original music with fun, uplifting music - it will instantly revoke all you ever associated with the famous fearsome film.
And in a way, this association also explains why high-pitched screams and dissonant chords sound “scary” to us. There are scientific explanations for why they sound unpleasant — they remind us of distress sounds! We made these sounds scary by putting them in scary films in the first place.
Crafting Chilling Melodies: Harnessing Musical Techniques to Infuse Your Compositions with Eerie Ambiance
So after that psychological/ science lesson, let's look at the fun stuff.
Devil's interval revisited
A tritone (devil's interval), or augmented 4th is the perfect way to create fear. It is rumoured that the interval became “forbidden” in some circles over time because of its demonic tone! Yet, in todays world, the augmented 4th is commonly used in all music genres from metal to rap.
Minor keys tend to make us feel sad or concerned, to many people it can even give the feeling that the sound is off key, making us feel as though something is about to happen. Check out our chords blog that explains how certain chord progressions evoke different feelings for us.
Footsteps, screaming, children singing, wind, chalk boards, dripping taps, clocks ticking, bushes rustling, malicious laughing … need I go on? All of these day-to-day ‘normal’ sounds (maybe except the malicious laugh?) aren’t scary until we make them scary - It’s the suspense! The unknown, the question of ‘what if’?
For those who did skip the first section (I said I wouldn't be offended, not that I wouldn't call you out for it!), this goes back to how humans have been conditioned to find certain sounds scary.
When we place these sound effects with the anticipation of the protagonist running through the dark forest in the dead of night (like that was a good idea), the sound of footsteps immediately becomes the perfect accomplice for a dry mouth, or sweaty palms … as you start to question if they will even be able to outrun the ‘scary’ footsteps. Better yet, these normal sounds, the relevance they hold within our own lives, makes it all the more adrenaline inducing, your own fight or flight response kicks in.
Aside from minor chords, dissonant sounds, and sound effects, there are just some truly scary sounding instruments guaranteed to make your skin crawl:
Waterphone - This instrument is a combination of a water drum and Mbira, which is a thumb piano originating from Africa. Used to create spooky sounds in many of the best horror movies to date, the waterphone creates sounds like those of dolphins and whales.
Theremin - Mostly, the theremin is used in movies that involve scenes of aliens. At a time when radio was the main media, Leon Theremin patented the theremin in 1928. With the theremin, you just move your hands, and the antenna catches the signal and then reacts by generating sounds.
Blaster Beam - Responsible for many of the spooky sounds you hear in horror movies, the blaster beam is a huge stringed, electric musical instrument. What makes its sounds so creepy and frightening is the exclusive bass tone.
Pipe Organ - The most classic use of this instrument comes from Pirates of the Caribbean. Outside of the church walls, this colossal (or should I say monstrous) keyboard infamously caught the attention of Hollywood productions (think of a blood thirsty vampire, I think his name is Count Dracula).
So, as you can see, music has the ability to transform a storyline. If you ever get scared watching a movie at home, just mute it, and see what happens. I don’t claim that the jump scares will be any less jumpy, but the psychological intimidation from the clock ticking away or the leaves rustling will suddenly lose all value. It is a pretty obvious point when you decentralise it, but worth a thought. How powerful music and sound can truly be. I think it’s your turn now, have a go, try to make some scary sounding music!
Take a shot every time I mention the word ‘movie’ or ‘film’ in this blog. Or, if you are under age…don’t. Either way, Happy Halloween!