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Sounds of horror: what makes music spooky?

Published 29 October 2020

Would it be the same without the music?

If we took the music out of scary movies, would we still get scared? Scary music builds up suspense, keeps us on edge and gives us that spooky feeling. Take a look at this parody of The Shining trailer with happy up beat music over the top, is it still scary? Or how about this trailer of Toy Story with scary music in the background . It’s interesting to see just how much music effects how we react to movies.

The instruments that are used in scary movies play a huge part in the effects of scary music. Unusual instruments that you wouldn’t usually hear in more contemporary music, e.g. a Theremin or Waterphone are most commonly used. Take a look at our Scary Instruments article to find out what other instruments are used in scary movies.
  • Using sound effects in scary music is a key factor when creating a genuinely scary atmosphere for the person watching. It’s important that the sound effects are high quality, if the screams or creaky door effects are unrealistic, it’s hard to build tension and actually make the audience jump. The background music and sound effects  being used are what make horror films as scary as possible. For example, distant creepy movements and eerie haunting winds that are played in the background are what build up the spooky atmosphere.
  • Sound effects that mimic human fear, including pulsing heartbeats and slow and heavy breathing, also increases the level of scariness. Take a look at some of these horror sound effects.

A lot of music used in scary films is composed using keys that change our mood and emotions. Using major keys will give a sense of happiness and positivity, that’s why a lot of composers turn to minor keys to build atmosphere in horror film. 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. The iconic Halloween (1978) theme song is a great example of this. Written in F# minor it creates an eerie and spooky atmosphere.

Using a Tritone, also known as the ‘Devil in Music’ is where composers simultaneously play two notes that are three tones apart. This effect creates an uneasy feeling of dissonance, where the music sounds unstable and unfinished. This is what gives us that feeling of being on edge and unsure of what’s around the corner – this is exactly where the composer wants us to be!

  • By adding dynamics into the music, it makes parts of the movie feel a lot more intense and builds on the suspense, really getting you on the edge of your seat. By lowering a piece of music during an intense scene where you know something is about to happen, and then having a huge burst of music or loud effect suddenly come on – that’s what makes us jump out of our seat!
  • As we know the music is such an essential part of making scary movies actually scary, however are moments of silence just as scary? Lots of horror movies include periods of complete silence, leaving us waiting for something to happen and being able to hear ourselves crunch down on that piece of popcorn. Moments like this draw the audience in and make us feel like we’re part of the movie. For example take a look the film ‘A Quiet Place’ where the entire concept of the film is based around pure silence.
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