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Published: 29 October 2015

What makes music scary?

Dr Christopher Wiley, Senior Lecturer in Music and Director of Learning and Teaching in the School of Arts, unravels the secrets behind scary music.

From the suspense-building Jaws theme to the screeching strings used in the notorious shower scene in Psycho, learn more about the techniques that give music the power to scare.

What makes music scary?

Eerie intervals  

Certain intervals are scary because they throw the conventions of music harmony and theory into disarray. One, the tritone, was considered so disconcerting that it was called diabolus in musica (the devil in music) by medieval theorists, and avoided at all costs!  

That’s why this same interval appears on the violin at the start of Saint Saëns’Danse Macabre; and it continued to instil fear in the minds of many parents when embraced by heavy metal bands such as Black Sabbath and Slayer.  

Chromatic notes, as featured in the ominous Shark Theme in John Williams’ score to Jaws – one of the most instantly recognisable and frequently quoted themes in the whole of film music – can also send shivers down the spine. 

The disturbing Dies Irae

Quoting this plainchant from the Latin Mass for the Dead has become the standard strategy by which composers across the ages have sought to signify the deathly.  

Berlioz uses it in the final movement of the Symphonie Fantastique, Liszt in his Totentanz and Rachmaninov in Isle of the Dead. 

More recently, it has made some surprise appearances in popular culture, including Stephen Sondheim’s musical Sweeney Todd and Alan Menken’s score to Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame.  

Intimidating instrumentation 

The pipe organ heads the list of instruments associated with horror given its gothic, archaic connotations, being used prominently in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s score to The Phantom of the Opera (where, as in Gaston Leroux’s novel, it is played by the ghostly protagonist).  

Vic Mizzy’s theme to The Addams Family, which was brilliantly parodied by Alf Clausen for a Halloween special of The Simpsons, uses harpsichord for much the same reason; while Saint-Saëns’s Danse Macabre features solo violin, the instrument traditionally associated with the devil.   

The impact of O Fortuna from Orff’s Carmina Burana is maximised by its loud, tense opening for full chorus, and the appearance of Dies Irae in Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique is made to sound fierce by being presented on tubas and bassoons, punctuated by bells to signify the ecclesiastical and funereal.  

The haunting human voice 

High, screeching string sounds, as used in Bernard Herrman’s soundtrack to the shower scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, can be scary for their evocation of stabbing and connotations of bloodcurdling human screams.  

A low, menacing human voice can itself sound equally terrifying, as in the rasping vocals adopted by the likes of shock rocker Marilyn Manson – whose cover of Danny Elfman’s This is Halloween, from The Nightmare Before Christmas, warrants a special mention – or the eerie narration by veteran horror actor Vincent Price in Michael Jackson’s Thriller, which culminates in cackles of evil laughter.  

Full choruses, meanwhile, add a gothic feel to scores ranging from Carmina Burana to Sweeney Todd to The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

Sinister silence  

For obvious reasons, this last issue isn’t well represented in the list of top tracks. But total quiet can be very, very frightening in itself – it yields the expectation that something is about to happen, but without any indications as to if or when.  

The scariest episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer was unquestionably the one where the characters deal with the immediate aftermath of the death of Buffy’s mum, because it didn’t have any music and therefore makes for uncomfortable viewing. This goes to show that it really is possible to have horror without a soundtrack.  

Learn more about Surrey’s music research and programmes in the fields of music and sound

13 tracks to add fright to your night 

  1. Danse Macabre (Camille Saint-Saëns)  
  2. Shark Theme from Jaws (John Williams)  
  3. Songe d’une nuit du sabbat from Symphonie Fantastique (Hector Berlioz)  
  4. The Ballad of Sweeney Todd from Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (Stephen Sondheim)  
  5. The Bells of Notre Dame from The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Alan Menken)  
  6. The Phantom of the Opera from The Phantom of the Opera (Andrew Lloyd Webber)  
  7. The Addams Family Theme (Vic Mizzy)  
  8. The Simpsons Halloween Special End Credits Theme (Alf Clausen)  
  9. O Fortuna from Carmina Burana (Carl Orff)  
  10. The Murder from Psycho (Bernard Herrman)  
  11. This is Halloween from The Nightmare Before Christmas (Danny Elfman)  
  12. This is Halloween, Marilyn Manson (Danny Elfman)  
  13. Thriller, Michael Jackson ft. Vincent Price (Rod Temperton)