You’re sitting in the cool, dark anonymity of a movie theater. The movie has been okay, but you’re not impressed. As the protagonist silently moves through an empty room, though, your dread becomes amplified by an underlying, unsettling sound. The movie isn’t real, it hasn’t even been that scary; and yet, you find your heart has sped up, and you’re anxious for the antagonist to pop out, to hear the startling jumpscare. Your body reacts to the movie’s score, acting against what your mind knows to be true. There is no threat on screen yet, but you feel adrenaline is pumping. How can this be?
The scariest movies are not remembered simply for their plots or characters — it’s the songs, arguably, that go down in history. From its origins in famous compositions like the poem “Dies Irae,” the “Jaws” theme, the suspenseful score of “Psycho” and even Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, scary music has been around for decades.
What kind of music scares us? Horror music composers use many different strategies to make moviegoers apprehensive. The manipulation of rhythm — acceleration, deceleration or an unsteady and disjointed beat — can be used to signal danger in a scary scene. Dynamics, how loud or soft the music is, are used to create an eerie effect or to make a sudden jumpscare. The pitch of the music may be raised, with a higher pitch indicating a higher amount of tension and peril in the film. Dissonance and atonal music are also used in many horror films, with composers combining chords in ways that disagree with one another.
Cal Poly assistant professor of music, technology and composition Julie Herndon spoke on the nuances of how we perceive music, and why we might want to use caution when it comes to pinpointing what makes music sound scary.
Herndon warned against “stereotyping” specific music as disturbing, “because for some people, really complex atonal music is going to make them feel comfortable; they’re gonna love that.” It is also hard to classify smaller qualities like major and minor chords as scary or not.
“That’s a lot of cultural training, that’s a lot of musical baggage that goes with these things that we might associate with atonal or not atonal,” Herndon said.
Herndon suggested that a better way to figure out what aspects of music disturb us is to consider what brings us calm. She explained that in the overtone series, what happens when a string vibrates, multiple frequencies can emerge: first, the fundamental frequency, then one an octave up, a fifth and a major third.
“While you can’t say that a C major chord sounds good to everyone around the world, because there’s so many different musical trainings, this overtone series exists everywhere,” Herndon said. “When something matches into this overtone series with frequencies aligning, that might be something that is a more comfortable or safe feeling.”
She pointed out that sounds we are familiar with and that occur in nature, like our own heartbeats, might also be more agreeable. The unfamiliar sounds, ones that we do not associate with our daily lives, are more likely to arouse a sense of fear and danger within our bodies.
Horror movie scores are designed to frighten us, to trigger a certain response in our primal instincts. Historically, composers have utilized various methods in order to elicit this primal fear within the listener. There have been composers that used the growls of animals or the barking of an angry dog as a method to disturb and frighten moviegoers. The goal of these composers is to tap into an assumed ancient fear of predators and trigger our fight or flight response. Although said predators are not visible on screen, the mere sound of their vocalized aggression is enough to raise alarms.
Similarly, the sound of animals or humans in distress is unsettling, and humans have a biologically ingrained response to these types of “nonlinear chaotic noises.” Scientists first linked these nonlinear noises to their uses in horror movies because of how marmots screamed when scientists caught them for research. The use of animal and human screams in film scores evokes a feeling of dread, and the audience is led to anticipate peril and trouble.
A viral example of this is the Winter Soldier’s leitmotif in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Henry Jackman, who scored “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” said, to make Bucky’s theme, he wanted to “get the sensation of a human trapped inside machinery.” So, he spent days taking “vocal recordings and then processed the living hell out of them to get these tortured, time-stretched human cries of someone who has been so processed that it’s become mechanized at the same time, but you can still hear the human in there.” The resulting leitmotif was a cacophonous, unsettling sound of harsh and foreboding terror, and the screams of humans were just audible enough to achieve the disturbing effect.
The underlying existence of low-frequency notes is also a tool used to drum up fear in an audience. The body’s extreme reaction to low-frequency sound waves is best illustrated by the case of a supposed haunted medical equipment engineering lab, published by the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research. Workers at the lab reported feeling depressed and on edge, and they experienced cold, full-body shivers. Workers would feel their colleagues next to them while sitting at their desks and turn to talk to them, only to find that they were actually on the other side of the office. Various personnel in the building began seeing apparitions and figures out of the corners of their eyes. There was a growing suspicion that there was another presence in the lab, one that fostered a feeling of extreme discomfort and growing terror. The lab was examined for gas leaks or mishandled anesthetic agents, but no evidence was found. The most plausible explanation appeared to be that the lab was haunted.
It was only when an engineer decided to repair his fencing saber at work that the explanation was discovered. The engineer left his saber on his desk to get some oil and came back to find the foil blade vibrating. The nature of the vibrating foil blade made the engineer realize that the lab was in contact with a low-frequency standing wave. After calculating the frequency, he discovered that it was a 19 Hz standing wave.
The mainstream range for sounds that the human ear can hear is 20 Hz to 20 kHz, with sounds below 20 Hz defined as infrasound. Infrasound does happen naturally, and humans may experience it as a result of earthquakes, waterfalls, thunderstorms or high wind speeds, for example.
Humans have the ability to pick up sounds as low as 1.5 Hz. Sounds below 20 Hz, though, can be felt in the human body. NASA technical reports found that full body vibration caused by a high level of a low-frequency noise resulted in symptoms of hyperventilation, which would explain feelings of doom and depression, as well as shivering, sweating and shallow breathing. Vibration of the eyes can also cause vision to “smear,” which could very well result in seeing objects or apparitions in the peripheral vision.
Most famously, it was rumored that the 2007 film “Paranormal Activity” utilized infrasound. According to IMDb, when audience members began leaving the theaters at the test screenings, “the crew thought this was because the film wasn’t going over very well with its audience, only to discover that people left the auditorium because they couldn’t handle the intensity of the piece.”
How can we use our body’s subconscious, primal reactions to certain sounds to make scary music? Herndon specializes in embodied composition, which she defines as “the practice of organizing sound in relation to the body and its internal/external experiences. It includes the intuitive and corporeal capacity to create, remember and respond to the environment. This creative practice manifests in the use of voice, gesture and the creative state.”
Herndon researched embodied composition for her dissertation and elaborated on the use of voice, gesture and the creative state as “how we might use gesture in other ways to reframe interactions with people, use the voice on stage or in an instrumental piece to connect our sounding selves with an instrument, or bring [the creative state or flow state] into a piece of music and ask performers to do some improvisation or ways of incorporating those things [into their performance].”
When asked about what might result from an artist playing an embodied composition piece that prompts them to ruminate upon an experience in their lives that was terrifying, Herndon gave a personal anecdote. She told the story of how she participated in a piece by the experimental composer Guillermo Galindo. Three volunteers were led behind the stage, blindfolded and asked to imagine their worst nightmare. The volunteers were instructed to, on the count of three, scream as though their worst fear was standing right in front of them. Galindo then recorded the screams and processed them electronically. Herndon recounted, “you can’t see the audience and you’re in this vulnerable, scared state … and then they had three people just scream on stage, just total, guttural scream … which is a great example of using that scared state to create music material.”
With such a variety of methods to create scary music, it is no wonder that modern horror movies produce such incredible pieces of art. Check out KCPR’s Spooky Music playlist to hear how some composers are creating chilling compositions for your favorite scary movies!