The perfect spooky soundtrack

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Scary movies and music have been partners in crime for as long as film has been in existence – music has been the narrator and plot driver of horror and thriller movies before the spooky protagonists even had their own voices. From early silent films to the dawn of the ‘talkies’ up until the thrillers of today, a terrifying soundtrack has been the glue that holds a good horror movie together. We only need to think of a couple of scary movies to recognise the major role music plays in building up the suspense and fear factor we all crave from a thriller or horror film – Steven Spielberg’s Jaws and Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho are two that spring to mind, and given these monumental titles, need I say any more? No two notes (only a semitone apart with increasing tempo) will ever be the same again after John William’s genius Jaws score claimed the alternating E and F forever. The screeching violins heard in the shower scene from Psycho is another iconic moment kept well within the scary movie music hall of fame. 

Scary music uses its power to shape our feelings and emotions immediately without even trying.

The sound of fear is one that can be felt within us instinctively – scary music uses its power to shape our feelings and emotions immediately without even trying. It pervades all genres and escapes association with one type of instrument or musical feature. A great spooky soundtrack leaves our nerves in shreds and can terrify us just as much as any on-screen action can. Let’s delve into some spooktacular scores handcrafted by the best scary music can offer, all in time for the perfect Halloween horror film binge calling your name over this Halloween weekend… 

So, what is the perfect recipe for a scary movie soundtrack? Like most recipes, each film incorporates an effective mixture of different components normally chosen to tap into the emotions of its audience. Horror and thriller movies tend to be based on the targeting of basic human fear, provoking the primal responses of fight or flight and drawing upon raw emotion through the combined medium of audio and visuals. It’s certainly more psychological than you first think! Even more interesting when you think about the effect music has on the way our emotions flare in response. 

The first staple of the scary movie score is most obviously a minor tonality, the serious, sad or dark sounding feel to the music that is held regardless of instrument or other features. Atonality and dissonance often feature heavily in thrillers to amplify even further the sense of disarray and discomfort. Think of Tim Burton’s film music – composer Danny Elfman is the king of minor tonality (not to mention the king of the scary movie) and he certainly knows how to use the minor key for suspense and thrill. 

Another addition to our scary movie recipe is the skilful use of timbre (the different instruments used). We need to look no further than the previously mentioned Psycho, an unforgettable example of careful consideration in the instrumentation used. The film’s composer Bernard Hermann specifically used strings only throughout the score in an attempt to strip back the music and highlight the stark nature of the film’s narrative. He certainly succeeded as the unforgettable shower murder scene just wouldn’t be the same without the squealing high strings the movie is now so famous for. 

Where would the horror genre be without the use of an unexpected ‘jump scare’ to get the heart racing?

A final component central to the success of a spooky soundtrack must be the use of effects and ‘jump scare’ sounds. Where would the horror genre be without the use of an unexpected ‘jump scare’ to get the heart racing? It’s often said that the action on screen wouldn’t be half as terror-inducing without the use of sound effects horror lovers have come to know and love. The 2017 remake of It epitomises the spooky soundtrack in its use of jump scares and audio effects – the terrifying drain scene is amplified simply by the use of an unexpected audio effect that mirrors the intensity of the action on-screen. The ‘jump scare’ manipulates the emotions by playing upon the adrenaline pumping through the viewer’s body and is often extremely successful in getting in the shock-factor viewers crave from their horror film fix. 

The recipe for fear when it comes to music is certainly not a straightforward one as there are many elements available to be used to create the spooky feel we are so instinctively drawn to. Despite this, it can be said that the scary movie soundtrack has its staples it cannot go without, the minor tonality, timbre and audio effects being three examples. The examples of Psycho, Jaws and It provide some key front-runners in the leader board for top scary movie soundtracks alongside many others that succeed in getting the heart pumping. Next time you watch a thriller, listen out for some of these features and take note of the way they manipulate your emotions as you watch what’s happening on-screen – it’s enough to make anyone a little spooked! 

Image: Noom Peerapong via Unsplash

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