The History and Psychology of Spooky Music and Sound Design in Film

Sound designer Lawrence Kendrick on the construction of horror music in films

Horror at its core is about our fear of the unknown. Suspense. Subverting expectations. I’m a huge horror fan and it’s one of the few genres I can still enjoy for what it is, rather than instantly dissecting the construction of its sound and music. Well, I’ve managed to ruin that for myself now too, by delving into the psychology and history of music and sound design in horror film.

Humans are scarily predictable creatures. We’re at our most comfortable in a clean bubble of patterns and predictability. Horror dissects these comforts, manipulating them, exposing us to familiar patterns but then subverting our expectations or warping them into something grotesque and terrifying. The majority of western pop music is incredibly predictable in its construction. Usually a 4/4 time signature, tracks built around 16 or 32 bar building blocks of intro, verse and chorus, familiar musical intervals and phrasing. Horror scores on the other hand are littered with unusual, unpredictable executions and ideas. You’ll often find uncomfortably sustained chords holding on and on and on. We’re programmed to know when a switch up is approaching in music and we find comfort in that knowledge. Sustained notes or chords that seem like they could end in an hour or in two seconds builds and builds tension. Something’s coming... but when. Composers will often use specially chosen chords that feel like they want to resolve to their root (augmented or 7th chords perhaps), but actively avoid doing so, again avoiding that predictability and building intense tension, making us, the viewer, more and more uncomfortable. These sustained chords are often played tremolo (a trembling effect) or in pulsating rhythms, reminding us of our heartbeat, a ticking clock and subconsciously, life and death, artificially building the drama and tension even further.

Tubular Bells, the theme from The Exorcist instead plays with a constantly changing time signature, often landing on an unusual 7/8. Or the theme from Halloween uses an unfamiliar 5/4, steering clear of comforting familiarity.

Above: Mike Oldfield - Tubular Bells

Dissonance is a concept that comes up often as a sound designer and composer.

dissonance /ˈdɪs(ə)nəns/ (noun)

  • lack of harmony among musical notes.
  • lack of agreement or harmony between people or things.

Clashing ideas, musical or otherwise, have a variety of uses. In horror, clashing musical notes just sounds wrong. Or even the actual instrumentation itself, at odds with the horrific visuals. Ever wondered why children’s singing or toy pianos are used to such great effect in horror movie scores? Dissonance can be inherently creepy, suspenseful and… unnatural. The infamous ‘tri-tone’ has been referred to as The Devil’s Interval since the late middle ages. Humans adore harmony, we latch onto notes which combine with simple mathematical ratios between their frequencies. Two notes an octave apart are at a perfect 2:1 ratio, and this relationship is so perfect to our ears that we give both notes the same (only an octave apart). The tri-tones on the other hand have an unbearable ratio of 45:32 or 64:45 depending on tuning. Oddly enough tri-tones are often used in sirens and alarms for the way they grab our attention.

Above: Tri-Tone

Soundtracks and sound design in horror often use sounds which evoke weapons, blades, blood and gore. Huge reverbs give a sense of space, loneliness and bring to mind Churches and the demonic. Fascinatingly, fear based screams (human screams we instinctively let out when we are genuinely fearful) have what we describe as a ‘rough’ quality to them. Horror instrumentation often features and mimics this quality to conjure up similar emotions.

A brief history of horror scores

Back in the Golden Age of cinema, horror scores were big and unsubtle, using lots of what's called ‘Mickey Mousing’, closely tracking action in almost pantomime fashion. Think Dracula emerging from his crypt with a huge score following his every move. The music was used to fill and overwhelm the shots.

Christopher Lee as Dracula (1958)

That all changed in 1960 with Hitchcock’s groundbreaking ‘Psycho’, scored by Bernard Herrmann. Finally, suspense and subtlety were beautifully considered and integrated into the scoring. Psycho is one of the earliest examples of the jump scare using what’s called a ‘stinger’ or ‘scare chord’. And of course there’s the iconic glissando upwards stabs in shower scene (it’s worth mentioning in the excellent 78/52 documentary which delves into the stabbing sound design used and the history of this scene).

Above: Psycho’s ‘Shower Scene’

The Exorcist (1973) is a personal favourite. Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki created a hugely experimental and disturbing soundtrack, the influence of which is still heard constantly today. Fluttery uneasy strings, beds of what’s called a “sound mass”, tone clusters. A sound mass is the name given to a complete mush of sound,where texture and dynamics are more important than the sense of harmony.

Above: Rick Beato on Sound Mass

And anyone can make a quick tone cluster to score their own horror moment by whacking a few keys adjacent on a piano. Cats running down a piano are unknowingly writing their own ‘mickey moused’ tone clustered score.

Legends Steven Spielberg and John Williams are worth a quick but notable mention for Jaws in 1975 for its iconic leitmotif. Representing a monster with a short musical idea has never been executed so purely and the tension that the rising tempo brings as the monster draws closer and closer… It’s iconic.

Penderecki did it again in 1980 with Kubrick’s ‘The Shining’ Featuring tri-tones, choral music bringing to mind the unholy, the Church, the devil. The beautiful dissonant use of children singing...

Other notable scores are John Carpenter’s The Thing from 1982, composed chiefly by Ennio Morricone, interestingly with some small additions by Carpenter himself. Heartbeat reminiscent sounds feature heavily in his score which is of course a solid trope still used today.

Above: Ennio Morricone - The Thing

These films and composers laid the groundwork for horror and psychological thriller scores today. It’s hard to say what horror music will sound like in 100 years but I’d bet we’ll still be playing with these same ideas then.

Until next time…