It’s Halloween. Just as you begin the new Halloween movie, or the 1978 classic, your heart skips a beat. You question what you’ve gotten yourself into as the opening theme weighs on you. In this moment, you remember that time you watched the shower scene in Psycho. Like Halloween and Psycho, the score used in horror movies sets the mood for the film. The mood of an entire scene can be affected by the nature of its score. Should the music be suspenseful? Atmospheric? Melodic? These are questions directors grapple with in order to set an appropriate tone for each scene. With a little understanding of the theory behind this effect, you may discover that it’s all in your head and learn to mitigate the spooky effect. On the other hand, you might be a horror enthusiast, eager to kickstart your adrenaline rush! Even if you would rather pass on a good scare, you can still appreciate the presence of darker musical elements in diverse genres of contemporary music.
The predominant principle present in scary music is chromaticism. The chromatic scale, consisting of adjacent notes played successively, often causes a feeling of being on edge. There is little resolution in chromatic music; it continually rises and falls, settling on no note in particular. The Jaws soundtrack is a prime example of this unnerving effect. Another key trick is the use of blues note. Known in music theory as the augmented fourth or the diminished fifth, this note creates dissonance in relation to the tonic (the first note in the scale). Accomplishing the opposite of pleasant, consonant music, the note is jarring and eerie.
Musicians use these elements to their advantage. Beyond film scores, such techniques have thrived in classical music, jazz, blues, and heavy metal. The violins in Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee” utilize chromaticism to simulate the chaotic flight pattern of a bee. Composer Schoenberg threw consonance almost entirely out the window with his avant-garde, atonal approach to music. Similarly, blues guitarists use the blues note to give their music an exciting, edgy feel. Heavy metal bands use this note, along with chromaticism, in order to make their music sound evil and ominous. Metallica’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls” features multiple descending riffs that signal impending wartime doom. Similarly, Jimi Hendrix’s use of the diminished fifth interval haunts and excites listeners.
Both music consumers and musicians ought to confront this type of music. Many people subsist on simple pop structures alone, enjoying upbeat songs with the occasional foray into melancholy. These songs are popular for a reason: they demand little emotion from the listener. Other music, however, forces listeners to face their demons. Pantera, a heavy metal band, tackles death and politics. Alice in Chains, a 90s grunge act, confronts themes like drug addiction, loneliness, and mortality. “We chase misprinted lies/We face the path of time/And yet I fight/This battle all alone/No one to cry to/No place to call home,” sings Layne Staley. Yet, it isn’t just the words that bring these bands’ messages home; dark instrumentation helps invite the listener to truly understand the lyricist on an honest, human level. Indeed, musical instruments can communicate ideas in a way that the human voice cannot, helping us feel the mind of the artist. The experience of music is almost holy in nature, manifest in the chills on your skin and the tears in your eyes.
On this note, I invite you to branch out to genres that experiment with elements to which you may be unaccustomed. In time, you may discover that such songs speak to you like nothing else. While you need not swap your workout playlist for a slasher film soundtrack, pushing past the initial discomfort associated with heavy, emotional music may prove to be a cathartic experience if you are at all dissatisfied with yet another three-minute radio hit.