Have you ever heard a noise that stops you in your tracks? It makes you wonder for a second. "Was it real?" "Did I imagine it?" A sound can put a chill down your spine and a desire to hide from it deep in your bones.
Now imagine another scenario. You're listening to your favorite song, letting the joy and comfort of it flow through you. Suddenly, right when it’s getting to the best part...there’s that noise again. And with it comes a sense of dread. It doesn’t matter that you were happy a moment ago. Now that sinister noise rattles something in you, and you need a moment to calm yourself down.
Naturally, a scary sound, especially in music, is going to startle the average person. But there’s more to it beyond just a gut feeling. There’s a science behind why we feel this way, and why certain sounds elicit this response in humans. Join me as we dive into the science behind “scary” music.
Sure, a horror movie’s plot can bring about fear, but it’s the film’s soundscape that elevates the entire experience. What would Halloween be like without John Carpenter's iconic score behind Michael Myers as he slowly walks to find his next kill? Would The Ring feel so terrifying if it didn’t include the droning TV static and thumps of Samara dragging herself across the floor? If you cover your ears during a tense scene in any horror or thriller, you might find that the scene itself isn’t that scary. The same goes for jump scares. I’ve been saying for years, sometimes it’s not that the visual itself scared me, it was the loud music, the “da-naaaa” sound effect they pair with it. A lot of horror fans find it cheap and overused these days. But guess what? They usually work. I usually without fail jump from scary music in a jump scare scene. And we’re going to dive into more of the “why”
Here are some examples of some great modern jump scares if you’re curious or unsure what I’m talking about.
A professor in the department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at UCLA by the name of Daniel Blumstein noticed nonlinear noise patterns when observing distress calls coming from marmots (these little guys for those unfamiliar). These patterns are, in fact, in a lot of animal distress calls. As you may have guessed, nonlinear noise patterns are also found somewhere else: horror movie soundtracks. These high-frequency sounds can be compared to a speaker being overblown to the point of distortion. The same thing happens when something screams.
Collaborating with his colleague Peter Kay who composes film scores, Blumstein analyzed different movie genres and came to the conclusion that sad movies tend to suppress noise while horror uses loud noises to amp things up. This might feel like, a duh thing to point out. But stay with me. Bringing together Peter Kay and Greg Bryant (Bryant is another colleague of Blumstein who works in communication studies and is also a musician), they were able to put together an experiment to test the theory. Together, the musicians created 10-second clips of relaxing music shown first, then distorted at about the 5-second mark to see how people reacted to it. It seems that adding that noise brought about negative feelings, not because it was scary, but because it brought up a different emotion than the original tune. This was also found in movie examples such as The Exorcist, Jaws, and as early as the 1933 King Kong where soundtrack engineers used actual animal cries and screeching to provoke horror in audiences. Composers have been using nonlinear sound to stir up negative feelings for pivotal moments for decades, and based on the reaction people have to music in scary movies, they’re doing their job well.
You can watch Blumstein’s TED Talk on the subject below.
Scary movies often include high-pitched screams with a lot of noise. In this context, “noise” doesn’t mean “loud sounds”, but describes a disturbance in the sound. This is much like radio static interrupting a silence. According to Blumstein, noisy screams in scary movies have the same effect on us as distress calls coming from animals. Screams evoke strong feelings in humans, and we’re conditioned to find them disturbing. We’re conditioned to be roused out of comfort.
But when you think of scary music, I’m sure it’s not just screaming. Oftentimes, it’s the music itself that can be unsettling. A spooky feeling can often be achieved using minor chords and dissonant sounds. This idea is nothing new. It can be traced back all the way to the Middle Ages, where one interval was called the “devil’s interval.” The accursed interval they speak of is the tritone, or augmented 4th. An example of this could be the interval between A and E flat. The interval became “forbidden” in some circles over time, but it was likely just meant as a warning to keep people from playing the odd noise that didn’t fit conventional songwriting back then. Unsure what this sounds like? You can get an idea of it by listening to Miles Davis’ “Walkin’” which uses the tritone.
You can also hear it in Saint-Saën's “Danse Macabre”
The reason why we feel discomfort listening to this sort of interval can be explained by physics. A typical two-note sound wavelength can have a pleasant sound pattern where the two sounds meet. But the wavelengths for a tritone or “Devil’s interval” aren’t compatible. The two sounds never meet on the same wavelength which creates a new regular pattern that forms a dissonant sound. It feels “wrong” to the human ear. So naturally, high-pitched nonlinear noise and dissonant intervals generate feelings of unease that make them perfect for scary music.
But there’s still one aspect we haven’t covered. What about the noises that seem innocent or normal out of horror movies? What makes them so scary? The short answer? Humans are the ones who make noises scary. Our reactions are what make things weird. Much like how the “Devil’s interval” became scary because we were told it wasn’t right. We are conditioned as humans to designate certain sounds or frequencies as scary. Scientifically, things like screams remind us of distress sounds which make us nervous, but when it comes to many other sounds in scary movies, they become scary because we put them there in the first place.
In essence, we are our demise. We’re scaring ourselves. Children singing in Christmas movies aren’t scary (to most) but put children singing in a horror movie and suddenly, a sense of dread is there. Why is that? Because anything can be scary under the right conditions. Music has a way of building that tension and dread to bring that uncomfortable feeling to the front of our minds. Beethoven’s 9th Symphony isn’t inherently scary, but it’s been used in thriller/horror to have people associate it with dread. How do so many people know Chopin’s Piano Sonata No. 2 (aka, the most popular funeral march)? Because scary movies (and also frequently cartoons, I’ve noticed) use it to set the tone of the scene. Our brains associate that piece with despair. The popular funeral march used in cartoons:
So, while there are scientific theories that help explain why humans react negatively to certain sounds or music, it also comes back to our animal instincts and the matter of repetition. If you show something in a horror movie enough, say a song like Tiny Tim’s “Tiptoe Through the Tulips,” for example (I’m looking at you, Insidious), it will become scary by association. This makes me wonder if some of the scariest moments I remember from horror movies would be as scary if you removed the audio. Go watch a scary scene from a horror movie you love and see if the same fear is there. Or...is your brain naturally filling in the sounds? Are you conditioned to mentally hear them forever? Report back with your findings.
Special thanks to the sources that helped me write this post:
This topic has thrown me down a rabbit hole into the effects of music within horror movies, so keep your eye out for a post coming up about songs made creepy by horror movies. Thanks for reading, and happy spooky season 🎃👻
Written by Kristen Petronio