It might be the ominous repetition of just two chords in John Williams’ Jaws score... the slashing, stratospheric register of the violins in the infamous ‘Psycho’ shower scene… or the low drone of the ever-portentous ‘Dies Irae’ Gregorian chant – but chances are, even if you’re not a music scholar, you’ll have an immediate answer to the question, “what does scary sound like?”
Dancing with the Devil’s Interval
Often, very little does a lot – a weird sequence of notes that leaves you on the edge of your seat, waiting to see where it goes next, the abruptness of a jolting chord, or the fight-or-flight response triggered by things we’ve conditioned ourselves to be on high alert for – like footsteps behind you, or the cry of a baby. Techniques as subtle as minor chords and dissonant sounds – or as obvious as shrieks and sudden high notes – can build a spooky atmosphere, plucking at our unconsciousness to make us stressed and nervous – but just why is the response evoked so powerful?
The triton – or Devil’s Interval – has been long identified by music theorists as the exact combination that forms most fear-inducing sounds. By marrying notes that are three steps apart – like F and B – that also have incompatible wavelengths, a dissonant sound is formed, but there’s still no definitive answer as to why this is so unfailingly disturbing to the human ear.
A 2010 study conducted by Daniel Blumstein, a professor in the department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at UCLA, does shed some considerable light though. Blumstein had a hunch about non-linear sounds, and noticed the harsh, screeching noises baby marmots make to get their parents attention also causes emotional distress in humans. He and his team then examined more than 100 movie soundtracks and found that non-linear, discordant use of sound played a key part in provoking horror in audiences, achieving the same effect as animal distress calls.
Simply put, humans have evolved to react to abnormal sounds, and with the right combination of chords, noise, and dissonance, this primal fear and inherent defence mechanism can be easily exploited to make us to cover our eyes – and our ears. Which brings us onto the unholy alliance of music and cinema that’s resulted in some of the most unforgettably terrifying and instantly recognizable moments in cinematic history.
Sounds to get under the skin
As a genre, horror thrives on targeting our most basic fears to illicit a raw, visceral emotion – but in order to truly get under the skin, the suspense, anxiety, and fear must be effectively ramped up, and consistently unpredictable. This challenge pushes composers to experiment and innovate, finding new ways to put stress on our ears and increase our anxiety – for example with the strange otherworldliness of the Theremin, a crash of cymbals at just the right moment, harmonic oddities, and sudden blasts or drops in sounds.
The otherworldliness of the other
A good example is the ubiquitous opening scene in which characters drive towards their destination, through scenic country roads edged with sunlit woods – the score to a horror movie will generally have us feeling disconcerted and wary of what awaits when we reach our destination, whereas more uplifting music immediately transports you to a romantic-comedy or coming-of-age drama.
A similar sequence in Jordan Peele’s ‘Get Out’ is soundtracked by Swahili chanting, and this use of choral singing in another language is a key feature across many of the more emotionally-led horror movies in recent years. In 2019’s Midsommar, pagan folk-choirs and guttural throat-singing are used to amp up feelings of foreboding in an unfamiliar place – and while at times the music sounds borderline jolly, it’s the unknown of it, the mystery of the meaning and the foreignness of the sounds that suggests all is not well.
Of course, over a lifetime of movie watching, we have now been conditioned to subconsciously accept sonic cues and note when something is about to go bump in the night – suggesting scare-by-association might have more psychological weight than discordant notes or musical construction. So now you know how your most primal instincts are being manipulated, will that make you drop the popcorn any less? Probably not, but one thing’s for sure - a good scare and a good score go hand-in-hand.