A little fright music: A few notes on why we find film and TV scores scary

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The brutal shower murder of "Psycho" is one of the most frightening scenes in film history. Norman Bates throws back the curtain, repeatedly stabbing an unsuspecting Marion Crane. The sudden appearance of the poised knife startles, but for equally unwary viewers Bates might as well have a violin bow in his hand.

Eeek eeek eeek eeek!

"High-pitched slashing violin glissandos perfectly underscore the brutal murder of the Janet Leigh character," Timothy Scheurer writes in "Music and Mythmaking in Film."

The music has become a cliche, often parodied. But here's betting it still gets you if you watch the original 1960 Hitchcock film, and perhaps even the flop remake of 1998.

With Halloween upon us, sounds of wailing ghosts and moaning zombies predominate, but horror music also sinks its teeth into us.


Some examples of scary music.

Music that invokes terror has had a documented place in Western music for centuries. In the Middle Ages, musicians were keen to avoid the diabolus in musica -- the devil's music. It's created when a specific two notes, such as C and F-sharp, are played in order or together. The tritone, as it is now called, isn't so much inherently scary as it is unstable. In a world of relatively consonant harmony and simple scales, this interval was the most dissonance you could achieve. But it took on a demonic meaning.

"The tritone's position within the medieval study of music caused it to acquire an interestingly specific musical symbolism ... it is, harmonically speaking, as far from grace as one can fall," writes Janet Halfyard in a study of horror comedy films.

But even in the case of two notes that have a physically measurable dissonance, in that each pitch vibrates at frequencies that interfere with each other rather than support each other, the tritone's association with evil is not inherent. Its meaning is a human invention. That would seem to be the case for most scary music.

Take the infamous "Jaws" theme. The repeating DUH-duh, DUH-duh, DUH-duh, DUH-duh was anything but frightening when Dvorak wrote a strikingly similar motif in his Symphony No. 9, a century before film composer John Williams had millions reconsidering swimming in the ocean ever again.

"Context certainly can multiply the associations of the sound," says Deane Root, a University of Pittsburgh professor of music and an expert in American music.

This is not that music can't enhance the frightfulness or startling nature of a movie scene or those Halloween haunted house or barn tours.

In his book "Knowing the Score," film scholar Irwin Bazelon sees an effect that is even more than psychological: "Pitch and dynamics also influence bodily reactions. They can disturb or calm and, in so doing, stimulate disagreeable or pleasant feelings. Although I doubt that they cause actual pain, they can produce considerable discomfort and, on occasion, intense fright."

Yet many of these sonic elements are closer to sound effects than music: harsh timbres, tremolo (fast repetition of a note), sudden shifts from quiet to extremely loud, dramatic leaps of pitch and dissonance.

Most memorable scary themes usually are much more than that, and they need context to become frightening to us. In fact, many themes today "acquired their scariness through musical (and sometimes cinematic) contexts," Mr. Root says. "I guess we could say that musical scariness is largely learned culture."


For nearly a millennium, eight simple notes cast a fearful pall over Europe. Why? Because they start a 13th-century Gregorian chant called the "Dies irae." Its text, "Day of wrath! O day of mourning! See fulfilled the prophets' warning, Heaven and earth in ashes burning!" cut to the heart of a populace constantly reminded of the horrifying threat of hell and the coming of an apocalypse. Its inclusion in the Roman Catholic requiem Mass cemented its association with death and the potential terror of judgment day. Composer after composer quoted it in music as the specter of death, famously in Berlioz's "Symphonie Fantastique" (1830) and potently in Verdi's "Requiem" (1874).

For other works, a later context can change the entire meaning of a work. Bach's famous organ composition, the Toccata and Fugue in D minor, can't be heard today as anything other than spooky and haunting. But it was just a work, if unusual for organ music of the 1700s, before its use in films such as "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" (1931) and "Tales From the Crypt" (1972), and musicals such as "The Phantom of the Opera" and, to some degree, "Fantasia."

If we could somehow listen to music without knowing its context, it probably wouldn't be frightening in the least. Without their titles, would Saint-Saens' "Dance Macabre," Mussorgsky's "Night on Bald Mountain" and "Baba Yaga" be scary, or simply boisterous or even intriguing? Even the Theremin gained its spooky and alien association later. Artists such as Clara Rockmore performed classical music with it in the decade after the Russian Leon Theremin invented the electronic instrument in 1920.

Context can even turn the most unassuming and peaceful music into spooky themes. The gentle music heard when the deranged killer Michael Myers lurks in the "Halloween" saga could accompany frolicking kittens were it not seared into the minds of viewers. The same could be said for the tubular-bell theme of "The Exorcist."

But the "Halloween" theme by John Carpenter is more a case of suspense than scariness. Music is far more effective in setting up a frightening event than actually being that event. It is certainly the case in film, TV and theater.

In a study of main title music in film, Mr. Scheurer cites "composer's efforts at establishing mood and tension in the music to create fear or at least a sense of foreboding."

"For centuries, music -- especially when accompanying action or dialogue in theater -- has been used to convey suspense in ways that can't be simply shown or stated," adds Mr. Root. "It need not be scary, but rather has the function of building anticipation and prolonging the discovery or resolution of the situation." Key to this is the continual repeating of notes, called ostinato in music circles.

You know what he's talking about: that telling music that has you clinging to a friend or family member, yelling "Don't go in there" or "watch out, he's behind you" to the screen. Just hearing it tells you something bad is about to happen.

In the end, however, music is a mirror that even Dracula appears in as a reflection of our own fears and conditioning. Music is the messenger, not the message, and it doesn't deserve to be shot.

Or stabbed, or slashed or sawed.

Andrew Druckenbrod: adruckenbrod@post-gazette.com ; 412-263-1750. Blog: www.post-gazette.com/classicalmusings . Twitter: @druckenbrod.


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