Bone-Chilling Chords

By: Lizzy Critchlow

As a child, I was scared of pretty much everything, but especially of any scary movies. Naturally, having a good family friend who was seven years older than me, I was constantly dragged into doing things that I didn’t really want to do, including watching horror movies. As soon as the creepy introduction music started, I knew I was done for. It became routine to hide my face during the parts I expected to be especially frightening (which often ended up being the entire movie). I would rarely get any relief from doing so, however, because I could never block out the music, which I discovered was really what frightened me the most.

During one of these traumatic horror movie sessions at home, my friend muted the television. Suddenly, I felt safe. Everything I saw on the screen looked ridiculous; all I saw was a man with his face painted green, a group of stupid teenagers constantly tripping over tree roots in the woods, a flickering lightbulb in an empty hallway. None of these images were frightening to me on their own because I could see them for what they were without creepy music persuading me to make any assumptions about what they “meant”.

Normal, everyday occurrences can be manipulated through sound, and these sounds draw you into the film. Taking away the music and sound brings you back to reality as you see merely flashing images, most of them too dark to see clearly anyway, which alone are rarely frightening. After all, what would Rosemary’s Baby be without its trademark lullaby? What would The Shining trailer be without its terrifying, anxiety-inducing music? How would you perceive climactic chase scenes without the accompanying music? How different would pointed moments of horror be without the orchestral accompaniment to raise the hairs on the back of your neck, heavily hinting that something will soon jump out? How would you even know you should be scared?

To take this in reverse, try listening to orchestral tracks taken from famous horror movies. The Saw soundtrack above alone is scary enough to make me cry. I find it fascinating that music alone can give you a gut feeling such as pure terror, when you often are unable to even identify what it is that you are afraid of. The use of minor cords, dissonant sounds, and sudden loud noises are most notable features of “scary” music, but even by identifying these features, it’s hard to explain exactly why they affect us so deeply. Here is a fascinating article on why exactly these types of sounds scare us; it argues that these sounds mimic terror calls and screams of wild animals.

This Halloween, if you’re afraid of everything like I am, just put that scary movie on mute and watch it turn from horrifying to humorous.

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10 thoughts on “Bone-Chilling Chords

  1. YES! In fact, I have long imagined ragtime music from The Sting (specifically the song, “The Entertainer”) to mitigate the scariness of movies!

  2. I find this post very intriguing because only recently have I noticed how much music contributes to horror movies. I have gone to the movie theatre to see horror movies and no matter how many times I tell myself it isn’t real, the music is too loud and plays to large a role in contributing horror that you can’t help but be frightened and anticipate scary happenings. However, when you watch the movie at home, with the volume turned down and without surround sound, it is much less scary. So many horror films have mastered creepy music, adding chords on top of each other.

  3. This was really interesting to read! It is interesting how much sound effects us–how if you put the exact same scene to two different pieces of music it can come across completely differently. Like with the the “horror” trailers for The Sound of Music and Mary Poppins that we watched in class. This post actually reminded me of something I’d heard a while ago, where someone was talking about poetry. They were talking about how writing can strongly effect people, but it’s harder to effect people with words than with music, because sound is something basic that we’re programmed to react to, while writing isn’t.

  4. I actually wrote a paper on something very similar to this a couple years ago, but focuses mainly on the music from the shower scene of “Psycho”. It’s a similar situation – without the music the scene looks utterly ridiculous, however, by adding the shrieking violins, it creates a sense of absolute horror. So much so that the music almost transcends the scene in horror. In any situation where that song is played, it creates a sense of dread in what is to come – even completely unattached from the movie.

  5. I love this post… but I’m also angry about it because I was in the midst of drafting a post about music in horror films when I found it…. But really, great job! I’m glad you mentioned putting things on mute, because it is an essential part of film (the soundtrack, not the muting). For instance, “Halloween” on mute? Eh. “Halloween” with that creepy, monotonous piano chord banging in the background? Frightening as all hell.

  6. I totally agree! Without the sound effects or music playing in the background it’s like watching a silent black and white boring old film. Music is everything! Yet oddly enough I was the kid growing up who would sneak and watch the scary movies with the “big kids” knowing I would be afraid. Horror is my favorite genre even though I too am easily scared. Yet the SAW series was never really appealing to me. It was probably the fact that I couldn’t bare the sight of watching that little doll/puppet peddle its way into a room. Looking back, I could totally take on the movie now if I muted the T.V.

  7. As someone who loves and appreciate the power of music, this article gave me a new and interesting perspective and lens to consider horror films from. While I’ve always noticed the screeching and dischordant music in these movies, I’ve never really given much thought to their role, and how and why they achieve the desired effect of discomfort in the audience. Music adds so much more then we realize. The article’s insight about programmed responses to sound that indicates a threat or pain is interesting. However, I also think its worth while considering the role of music and its effect in other genres, like romance. What could be the science behind our responses to that?

  8. I find it interesting that music can truly make other elements of a film seem ridiculous. However, I feel that music can often connect with an observer in the most deep sense. One can witness something ridiculous, but music often connects with us in such a personal fashion that it truly plays upon our emotions. It is good that you realized this, or perhaps you would have been turned off to the horror genre forever! This post was really quite insightful and I look forward to reading from you in the future!

  9. I completely agree with your view of the role of music in horror movies. I think it also extends to every other type of movie. I often find myself listening to melodies and having some emotion being pulled out of me just from the music. I’m interested in reading the article about how music can scare us because I’ve always thought that music plays a huge role in affecting emotions, at least for me. Honestly, I think music is important in moderating emotions when watching anything.

  10. Not only does music play a huge role in horror movies, but in other action movies, thrillers and even games too. I have found that I am more attracted to media with a very good soundtrack, even if the actual story is not that great. I loved the “Inception” soundtrack, and almost any movie and video game scored by Hans Zimmer. Regarding horror, I have noticed that it is the loud “Dun” that gets me in movies, not the image. I tend to cover my ears when bracing for a jump-scare in theaters while other people I go see movies with cover their eyes. I think that appropriate music allows for a more immersive experience for our sensory modalities – not only do we see the event unfurling before our eyes, but we can hear the eeriness of the situation, manipulated by the horror-inducing music. Certain musical cues, if used correctly, will powerfully drive home the message a certain scene is trying to portray.

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