What Makes Spooky Music Sound Spooky?


Silhouette of a skull to depict what makes spooky music sound spooky

Have you ever wondered why some pieces of music sound scary? Today we are going to explore some characteristics that we associate with music that gives us goosebumps and feelings of uneasiness.


The Tritone


Referred to as the Devil’s Interval since the early 1700s, the tritone is made up of three whole tones and is also known as an augmented fourth and diminished fifth. Examples include:


C to F# (C-D, D-E, E-F#)

F to B (F-G, G-A, A-B)

D to G# (D-E, E-F#, F#-G#)


This interval has been described as discordant and not “sounding right” due to a lack of harmony. It evokes a feeling of tension or clashing. That feeling of tension and edginess is what we call dissonance. The tension between the clashing notes makes the listener feel like the music is unresolved.


You can hear the jarring sound of the tritone (A and Eb) being played by the opening violins in Camille Saint-Saëns’ Danse Macabre Op. 40.


Minor Seconds


Minor seconds are the notes adjacent to one another. Examples include:


C and Db

E and F

A and Bb


Once again, we hear dissonance. An added trick is to play the notes at the rarely used ends of the keyboard to produce a feeling of the unfamiliar since we tend to hear music played around middle C. You will produce a tension-filled tune full of foreboding and apprehension. The most famous use of the minor second is in John Williams’ iconic Jaws Theme where he moves from a very low E to a very low F. Who knew that the simplicity of two notes played over and over again will forever be associated with feelings of danger and a fear of sharks?


Instruments


Some instruments are associated with spooky sounds. The theremin is an electronic instrument in which the player expertly moves their fingers and hands, as though casting a spell, through the electromagnetic fields generated by the theremin to make the distinctive theremin warble. It is commonly associated with the paranormal due to its haunting and eerie sound. Danny Elfman used the haunting sound of the theremin very cleverly in the theme for Mars Attacks!


The violin can be manipulated to sound terrifying especially when it is played at an unusually high note. We experience the suspenseful sound of the violin in the movie Psycho where we are accosted by Bernard Herrmann’s shrieking violin score being played at incessantly high notes as the horror unfolds onscreen. Another interesting technique used in Psycho is the glissando which is a glide from one pitch to another. It leaves listeners feeling uncomfortable and on edge.


A creepy instruments list would not be complete without mentioning the pipe organ. It evokes images of gothic architecture and storytelling, dark corners in stately homes, and a lone figure playing the pipe organ. Take a listen to Toccata and Fugue in D Minor by J.S. Bach and you can understand why this piece has appeared in many films including the 1962 version of The Phantom of the Opera and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.


Atmosphere


An average song can produce goosebumps because of the atmosphere in which we hear the song. The Creepy Singing Child trope is a popular example of this tactic. We hear the angelic, innocent voices of a child or choir juxtaposed against the feeling that a jump-scare is about to take hold. Insert short clips of white noise, whispering, or a cacophony of unexpected noises for an even scarier effect. Listen to Jerry Goldsmith’s Carol Anne’s Theme heard during the end credits of Poltergeist as a great example of turning an ethereal song into a tune that will keep you up at night.


Inspirational Subject Matter


Composers take inspiration from subject matter and a brilliant example is Modest Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain. He was inspired by the Witches’ Sabbath (a gathering of those who practice witchcraft) on St. John’s Eve. Can you feel the urgency, tension, and anxiousness in the music? Now watch Disney’s use of Night on Bald Mountain where the film Fantasia depicts a sinister-looking demon descending from Bald Mountain onto a village to summon ghosts, demons and other supernatural creatures.


Whether or not you celebrate Halloween, we hope that you enjoyed reading about scary sounding music and the next time you hear a spooky soundtrack or hear a scary-sounding piece, you will be able to recognize some of the techniques mentioned in this post.



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