Music for Horror Movies
Ever wondered why the music in horror films is so terrifying? There’s a science behind the scares, plus tricks and techniques you can use and identify when you’re choosing music for scoring horror. Plus, we showcase our pick of the classic horror film scores.
The Best Horror Movie Music
Psycho’s screeching violins. The ominous notes that tell you the shark is approaching at speed through the water. The creeping fear as the hero or heroine walks alone down a dark alley or through a wood. Along with lighting, effects and jump-scares, music and sound design are the most vital and effective weapons in a horror film maker’s arsenal. But is there a science behind what makes the best horror movie music? The answer is: yes.
Horror film music techniques
So, what’s the secret science behind horror music? The key lies in a combination of dissonant sounds and minor chords. Researchers believe there are biologically-ingrained reasons why these make us apprehensive – and it hits us at a primal level.
The best horror music taps into a part of your brain that operates purely on instinct, and often relies on composers using familiar sounds in unusual ways; the distortion of reality is immediately unsettling.
‘The sound itself could be created by an instrument that one would normally be able to identify, but is either processed, or performed in such a way as to hide the actual instrument’ Harry Manfredini, composer for Friday the 13th
This explains why Psycho’s shrieking violins in the shower scene are so powerful – it’s not a sound that you’d usually associate with violins being played, and it’s distorted. The pitch is also important – on a subconscious level, high-pitched noises signal danger. Harsh, discordant and unexpected sounds imitate the squeals of frightened or distressed animals, screams and other ‘non-linear’ sounds of panic. The noises trigger a biologically ingrained response, making us think our young are threatened by predators.
When it comes to what we find unsettling in music, as far back as the Middle Ages, in music theory the tritone, a musical interval composed of three adjacent whole tones (such as F and B), was known as the diabolus in musica (devil in music) and is largely avoided.
For a more in-depth look at creating unresolved tension and how atonality can keep an audience on edge, in ominous movie music, check out this video from 12Tone:
Our instinctive reactions to dissonant sounds are also behind the success of Jaws’ theme. The trailer is a masterclass in crescendoing minor chords and jagged violins, combined with the high-pitched lifeguard’s whistle (another danger sound) and shrieks. Bring this together with the visuals and the doom-laden voiceover and you have a timeless classic.
A technique which film makers deploy that’s also proven to be highly effective at freaking out an audience is ‘infrasound’ – a low-frequency sound that’s at a pitch below the range of human hearing (which is around 20 Hz). Infrasound exists in nature and is created by things such as wind, avalanches and earthquakes. It’s even used by elephants to communicate over long distances.
For people, infrasound has been demonstrated to induce anxiety, heart palpitations and shivering – you feel it in the same way you’d feel the ‘rumble’ of an approaching avalanche or earthquake. Producers of the French psychological thriller Irreversible admitted to using it, with audience members feeling disorientated and physically ill after half an hour. And despite a lack of action onscreen, audiences of Paranormal Activity reported very high fear levels – caused by the use of low frequency sound waves.
Steve Goodman, author of Sonic Warfare: Sound, Affect and the Ecology of Fear, has a theory as to why we react this way: ‘Abstract sensations cause anxiety due to the very absence of an object or cause. Without either, the imagination produces one, which can be more frightening than the reality.’
It’s thus a very effective way of building tension before a scare in a movie. Studies have shown that exposure to infrasound can disrupt cortisol levels (the so-called ‘fight or flight’ hormone associated with stress.) It basically tells you that something is wrong, even though you haven’t actually seen it yet.
If you want to experience it yourself, go really low with this 8 Hz audio.
Best Horror Movie Soundtracks
The soundtracks to horror films have evolved over the decades, from the Golden Age of lush, classic string sections and pounding timpani, to the much more minimalist character themes of the 1970s and early 80s, which proved to be game changers. Check out Reverb’s video for a whistlestop tour through the history of horror scores.
A horror film’s score can turn it from good to great – and even into a classic. Here’s our selection of the soundtracks by noted horror movie composers that are as terrifying as the visuals.
Psycho, 1960 – Bernard Herrmann
Psycho’s composer, Bernard Herrmann, also wrote the music for War of the Worlds and later, Citizen Kane. He and Alfred Hitchcock had developed a close working partnership during the 1950s (including Vertigo and North by Northwest) by the time they came to Psycho in 1960.
For Hitchcock, this was a low budget film – and that extended to the music budget. Hermann, however, managed to create tremendous range within a limited group of instruments – the string section - using them to create percussive effects in the absence of the usual timpani.
And even more crucially, he provided a score for the shower scene – when Hitchcock had originally thought the scene would be more effective if the audience only heard Janet Leigh’s screams, her struggle, the sound of the knife and then the water running. The music, in fact, is crucial in terms of making the audience identify with Leigh’s character. Hitchcock acknowledged Herrmann’s brilliance when he declared that, ‘33 percent of the effect of Psycho was due to the music’.
Delve more into how Herrmann builds suspense and shapes the viewer’s thoughts throughout the film.
Suspiria, 1977 – Goblin
Filmmaker Dario Argento had worked with Italian prog-rockers Goblin on Profondo Rosso and tasked them with writing a soundtrack that would make the film’s witchy theme linger with the audience – and could also be used on set to guide the actors.
The experimental sound is created with a mix of Moog synths, tabla and bouzouki and makes the most of weird rhythms, dissonance and funky prog. The band also used voices, whispering the word ‘witch’ or singing a twisted lullaby. Goblin’s use of synths proved to be hugely influential. When the band’s founder member, Claudio Simonetti, met John Carpenter years later, the self-styled master of horror introduced himself by exclaiming, ‘I know you very well – I stole all your music.’
Halloween, 1978 – John Carpenter
‘Someone once told me that music, or the lack of it, can make you see better. I believe it’ John Carpenter
Director and co-writer John Carpenter also composed and recorded the soundtrack – in two weeks, with the iconic theme written in just an hour. Influenced by Bernard Herrmann and Ennio Morricone, the theme is set to a meter of 5/4, tapping into the audio trick of disconcerting the viewer, and devoid of complex orchestrations. But then that fits the film: Michael Myers isn’t a complex villain driven by nuanced desires. He’s just pure evil. Alternatively, its simplicity is down to Carpenter’s abilities, as the director/composer confessed, ‘it has to be [simple] because I’m playing it. I have minimal chops as a musician.’
Read more about how the original soundtrack influenced that of the Halloween reboot, in this interview with John Carpenter.
It Follows, 2015 – Disasterpeace
Rich Vreeland, aka Disasterpeace, has a background in composing for video games, such as FEZ. The film is a mix of tension, big scares and gallows humour that felt to many horror aficionados like a throwback to the classics, such as Halloween. Vreeland’s sinister, synth-heavy soundtrack for It Follows owes a debt to John Carpenter, Goblin and Psycho, and in common with Carpenter’s score for Halloween, Vreeland was also up against a tight deadline of only three weeks.
Vreeland pinpoints both timing and dissonance as key features in the soundtrack’s success;
‘People have a particular relationship with dissonance in music. Dissonance isn’t really on the forefront of pop culture, musically speaking, so I think that when you hear it, especially within a film, it creates a certain feeling of uncertainty or something that’s scary… It’s a combination of using that kind of dissonance harmonically speaking, but then also having lots of randomness almost in the sound. And I think that’s where dissonance applies to that, where there’s like a squall of different notes that are all choiring and you don’t really know where you are. You don’t feel like you’re at home. You don’t feel like you’re in a major key or something. Then the dynamics in rhythm, and the dynamics between when the music gets really quiet and then it gets really loud, and timing is really important as well for creating this tension that creeps people out.’
Creepy Background Music
- Dissonance – Alien’s theme uses a high-pitched sound in the background, mimicking an alien sound, together with a haunting flute and a clashing synth
- Dramatic orchestral and percussive hits at scene changes
- Use of whispered text – this is used to great effect for the killer’s theme in Friday the 13th and in Suspiria
- Sound effects – check out Howard Shore’s blend of a voice, string orchestra and digital samples for Cronenberg’s Videodrome, or François Tétaz’s use of abandoned telephone wires in Western Australia, which created a dark, ambient ‘singing’ noise as they were caught by the wind, in Wolf Creek
- Loud choral accents – such as The Omen
- Electronic music elements – Halloween is a classic – Netflix’s Stranger Things expertly captures the 80s feel, tapping into audience nostalgia
- Classic horror sounds such as a ticking clock or ‘beating heart’ – Stranger Things’ theme also has an underlying ‘heartbeat’
- An eerie synth pad holding a suspenseful tone
- Minor chords or scales
Music for Horror Movies
Looking for high-quality horror music? Our catalogue of over 175,000 quality and expertly-produced tracks has a huge array of music that’s perfect for a horror movie soundtrack, and you can search by genre, mood and instrumentation – we’ve picked a selection of the best horror music playlists, focusing on some classic ‘horror’ instruments.