Haunting Music

With Halloween drawing ever nearer you’re probably spicing up the mood already with horror films or haunting music. But what makes the soundtracks so scary, and what are some of the most effective pieces? Let’s have a look at the theory and science behind creepy noises.

What makes haunting music put you on the edge of your seat while listening? Why are some horror movie soundtracks so horrifying? Without a solid understanding of music theory, it probably seems like a mystery, but even then, you definitely feel it while listening. Dissonant chords and shrieking notes always have an uncanny effect.

It’s difficult to know why this is the case, although we’re gradually gaining an understanding. Artists discovered long ago that major chords generally create positive emotions, whereas minor chords create negative ones. This is a rather simplistic view and isn’t always true, but by and large, it’s the case.

Dissonant chords, on the other hand, create a sense of uneasiness. Due to their eerie nature, composers for a long time deliberately avoided using them. With the rise of polytonal and atonal music that became a thing of the past, but they still produce a jarring effect whenever you hear them.

New Findings – what makes sounds scary?

In 2012, Daniel Blumstein from the University of California produced a study suggesting that the reaction to haunting sounds is biological in nature, since they evoke instinctive emotional responses. He discovered that the music resembles animal distress calls. Baby marmots, for instance, screamed in a nonlinear chaotic noise when caught. An animal’s scream, a child’s cry and a dissonant chord all trigger a response in humans, making us think our children – or ourselves – are being threatened.

As part of the research, participants rated music segments based on emotional stimulation. Blumenstein correctly predicted that they ranked music with nonlinear elements as more stimulating and stated they linked it to emotions such as fear or sadness. Furthermore, tracks where the pitch was raised higher provoked even stronger emotional reactions.

But he also discovered that the reaction is dependent on the context. When listening to haunting music alongside ‘boring’ images, the participants rated it as less stimulating. Also, some music is associated with scariness just by social engineering. The singing of children’s nursery rhymes, for instance, only seems scary to us because horror films have put them into frightening situations in the first place – so they seem haunting by association.

Haunting Music in Films

It goes without saying that horror movies wouldn’t be as effective as they are without the use of sound effects. Alfred Hitchcock even said that one third of the reason Psycho was a great hit was based purely on the music – and personally, I’d be inclined to agree.

But it’s a bit of an artform in itself, creating music for horror films. Some are subtle and create a slight sense of uneasiness, others are just brilliant tracks which make you feel uncomfortable. Others are less effective and just produce loud noise, which never really works.

But enough theory: let’s look at some scary pieces from classical and film music to give you some goosebumps!

Modest Mussorgsky – Night on Bald Mountain

There’s a reason this music makes practically every list of ‘top 10 scariest classical music’. It drips brilliance from every pore, starting with the chilling, quick-paced violins at the start and the horns underlying the music with a sense of the approaching end of days. It’s haunting music from start to finish and will keep you from sleeping at night. Probably no surprise, then, that it was used for the segment with the devil in Disney’s Fantasia.

Bernard Herrmann – Theme from Psycho

One word: uncomfortable. Probably one of the best horror soundtracks of all time, this immediately puts you in an eerie position where you’re afraid to look behind you out of fear that something might be lurking there. Without this track, Psycho wouldn’t be what it is. With it, it is brilliant. Screeching sounds which move unstoppably onward at succinct points during the movie really make this an unforgettable sound which will haunt you for a long time.

J.S. Bach – Toccata and Fugue in D Minor

Honestly, as much as I love this piece, I think it’s largely considered haunting music by association through its use in horror films more than anything else. While it largely uses minor keys, it’s quite timid on the dissonant side and actually has a few uplifting moments. Nevertheless, overall it’s lovely, quick-paced, always entertaining and just plain beautiful, with some generally horrific moments in there. And the sound of an organ always sounds a bit haunting, I suppose…

Mike Oldfield – The Exorcist theme

This is a strange one. The track itself isn’t as much scary as it is minimalistic and in a constant loop of producing an eerie, otherworldly feeling – perhaps more mysterious than outright frightening. I think the reason the film works effectively with its music is because of it’s hardly ever present – instead, the film offers you a silent build-up with regular conversations and a gradual build-up of dread, with the soundtrack really just giving you a hint at the underlying haunt.

György Ligeti – Requiem (esp. II Kyrie)

This piece works from so many different angles. First by association, since the Kyrie Eleison – in English ‘Lord, have mercy’ – within a requiem already has a sense of desperation in it. Second, it’s one constant dissonant chord with more and more layers building upon it. Third, the sound of shrieking human voices to uncomfortable instrumental aspects makes it sound horrific. Just envision this being the sound of billions of lost souls yearning, screaming, begging for mercy on judgment day…

John Williams – Jaws theme

To finish off with another soundtrack which makes excellent use of build-up, this one is also a great example of haunting music. It starts out quietly with low notes, but builds up rather quickly with quiet, but increasingly louder bangs and dissonances and a variety of instruments which always sound threatening – culminating in the moment the strings come out and produce a shrieking effect. It captures perfectly the threat that lurks underneath the water surface.

Closing thoughts

There you have it, some thoughts and examples of haunting music! Can you think of any other pieces I’ve left out that need to be mentioned? Then please leave me a comment! Otherwise, if you liked this article, then feel free to click on one of the tender buttons below to share it on the social media of your choice.