Music in Horror

By: Ira Brandon III


When thinking about horror as a genre, one generally thinks of things that scare them such as places, entities or the unknown. Others may think of a scary movie that scarred them as a child or even a frightening book that chilled their spine as they turned every page. When I think of horror I think of film and music. Unbeknownst to many, horror stories in film are enhanced dramatically by the music. Lizzy Critchlow introduced this concept earlier this year in a post entitled “Bone Chilling Chords”. Music is used to add suspense when a woman is walking down a hall checking rooms from door to door trying to see what made that noise, it adds dramatic intensity when the protagonist opens the closet and an evil clown doll pops out in attack, and it also adds ambience as the music builds up as the antagonist serial killer walks out of the water towards the innocent campers in the woods. Those are just a few examples where scary moments simply become horrifying when music is added.

A specific movie that uses all of these elements in a brilliantly is called Insidious: Chapter 2. Insidious: Chapter 2 is a film that revolves around the Lambert family as they seek to uncover their mysterious past and how it links them to the dangerous spirit world. In this movie the main composer is Joseph Bishara and his music is nothing short of creepy. A great example that really captures how Bishara was able to create a sinister ambiance can be found in the track called “you think I did this”. Here you can hear a very sharp, almost out of tune, violin crescendo as it plays very unnatural patterns. There are no other sounds except that of other violins strumming a counter melody in the same styled unnatural patterns. This song was played as the camera panned through the empty house making the viewer feel unsettled. It just shows how something like a house is easily turned creepy with music.

In a second example, Bishara shows how he is able to capture the elements of suspense and also a ‘jump scare’ in one of his tracks. In the track, “feel real Pain”, there is a bass monotone that fades in with the same sinister violin sounds that are similar to the previous track. The violin patterns crescendo and the layers build to about 0:36, where we receive our ‘jump scare’ in the score. Here multiple violins can be heard, all strumming sporadically to indeterminable rhythms.  Here we are also introduced to some percussion as drums, synth and noisemakers can be heard in the background. Key signature is a huge contributor to the creepiness of this track because it is in a minor key; it is not comforting to hear. There are no resolution notes, no major notes, just minor notes and chords. The track erupts into a sinister bass line around 1:18 and this takes the scariness to a whole different level. This track was used as the main character is searching for a way out of the spirit world and then realizes that he is not alone, and ultimately is chased by an entity.

After looking at these examples, it is clear to see that music plays a huge role on establishing horror. Not only are the tracks I selected creepy because of their unnatural pattern, but they also show how they use the science of major and minor keys to also create creepiness. Minor keys are unsettling naturally, horror aside, and it’s extremely interesting to note how composers are able to utilize these facts to establish creepiness.


3 thoughts on “Music in Horror

  1. I just finished watching The Shining for our class and I must say it is another example of how important music is to horror. This is clear to see, just by muting the movie it becomes ten times less scarier. Movies like The Shining uses music to build up suspense and to create the rhythm to our fear levels, heart beat, and anticipation. Horror wouldn’t be the same without musics.

  2. I really liked the first post about music in horror and thought that this was a good elaboration on her initial thoughts and reflections. Music is critical to setting the atmosphere of any genre of film, and is particualrly powerful in horror. We looked at examples of this in class as well. One does not have to be a musician to identify the eery strategies used.

  3. I think it is very interesting how certain chords sound eery and creepy. I used to play piano and violin and I only focused on songs that are structured to sound smooth and traditional. The breaks and repetitions of horror music is terrifying and unnatural to play and listen to. I am very frightened by horror novels and wonder if details evoke horror in stories, while music evokes horror in movies. The scariest part of horror films is always the music.

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