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Why Does Scary Music Scare Us? [2021 Update]

Find out what makes music scary

Have you ever noticed that some music just puts you on edge?

Or how a movie scene is exponentially more terrifying when the music is added?

Why does music do that?

Well, let's not waste time and get right into it.

  1. What is scary music
  2. What makes scary music scary
  3. Why does scary music scare us
  4. Different types of scary music
  5. How scary music affects the brain
  6. How scary music makes movies scarier
  7. Why does scary music play in video games
  8. How scary music is made


What is scary music?

Scary music is a tool.

It has one main purpose. That is to make the listener afraid.

It's organized chaos. A collection of absurdities assembled together that don't relate to one another.

It's meant to be wrong.

Scary is often used to increase the tension of an already terrible scene in a movie, to make a person worry, or to cause someone to wonder in a cynical way.

Ok, now that scare is over, you can go back and analyze it.

This film borrows heavily from Doctor Who's 'Don't Blink' episode which may very well be the scariest episode in the franchise.

The main antagonist are the weeping angles who can't move if you see them, but if you're not looking... well.

Notice how the use of music is very minimalistic in this short film.

There is the reoccurring motif of a reverse voice for subtle jump scares that aren't too big so that tension can also be built.

It's not until 2:50 into the film that there is a really loud jump scare and the threat is realized.

As the protagonist is walking backwards, there is rising stress in a growing but disorganized string part.

The music stops for a bit when he falls, but it comes back very heavy.

The pressure mounts consistently for the next 20 seconds until he gets rid of the threat. This causes the viewer to get very up-tight and anxious watching this short film.

We know that this is an example of scary music, but what makes it scary?


Why Does Scary Music Scare Us?

There are many ways to create good scary music. Trigger our primal insecurities, use audio illusions, or use a sound that has represented death for hundreds of years, are all very effective means of scaring us.

Let's have a look at them:

Primal Insecurities

The most direct means of scaring someone is to understand the noises we make in response to fear.

Case in point: Screams.

Screaming is the most fundamental way people signify that there is danger.

But what is a scream?

A scream is when a person sends air very quickly through the voice box. It's shrill, it's all over the place, and it's loud. It's a nonlinear sound.

But humans aren't the only ones who use nonlinear sounds as cries for help. Rabbits, deer, foxes, and marmots.

Daniel Blumstein works with those marmots we mentioned. During one of his studies, he picked up a baby and it screamed which scared him. Then he got to thinking.

Why did that scream scare me?

He did a study and found that it's in so many other animals. He calls it an arousal in emotion.

He found that it causes our brains to go into fight-or-flight mode and that composers use this knowledge in their music all the time.

The human voice is a great way to get emotions. Not only fear, but sadness, happiness, or guanine terror. A crying child is a particular good example.

To make things even more on edge is to play the sound of a voice backwards. A human voice is a familiar sound that, when played backwards, sounds almost familiar, but not quite.

You can apply that concept to anything that was once comforting.

Take this for example:

This is happy birthday turned demented.

It starts with a backwards track of a violin playing very high to mimic a scream and then immediately has the sound of a child crying. It puts your nerves on edge from the start.

This follows with an actual scream and the reverb in the background.

To top it off, it uses the visual support of evil clowns, which used to be a source of laughter, but now a threading form.

Audio Illusions

Audio illusions are great. They make the listener think they hear something that isn't really happening.

A shepard tone is one of the most widely used audio illusions out there. It involves at least three rising pitches all at the same time. The top rising pitch is fading away, the middle rising pitch is remaining a constant volume, and the bottom rising pitch is fading in.

Eventually, the top is gone, the middle takes the top's spot, the bottom takes the middle's spot, and a new bottom line fades in.

This makes it sound as though it is forever rising but never really going anywhere. Just like a hamster wheel.

This is just the same audio track on loop.

It can work in reverse too.

Another audio illusion that works in a similar way is the Risset rhythm.

A beat comes in and slowly gets faster while another beat comes in at half speed, but also getting faster at the same rate.

The fastest beat fades out as another slow beat fades in. It sounds like it is always getting faster.

This is just the same track looping over and over

Ready for the ultimate audio illusion?

Here's a talking piano.

It's not really used in scary music, but I thought it was cool and also a little creepy.


Dies Irae

The Dies Irae is an ancient Gregorian chant the Catholics started using in the 13th century. Its purpose was for a funeral mass.

It was used to represent death.

The first words of the chant are "Dies iræ, Dies illa solvet sæclum favilla" which directly translates into "Day of wrath, that day will dissolve the world in ashes."

Not good news.

But it doesn't stop there.

Listen to the first four notes (the first 3 seconds of the video).

Those are the iconic notes used for death. Otherwise known as the Death Motif.

Sometimes, the first eight notes are used (the first 5 seconds of the video)

This death motif has shown up in fo many scores as a representation of death.

See how many times you can hear it.



Different Types of scary music

Creepy - Ultron I've got no Strings

What makes something creepy? Creepy is taking something that's almost familiar, but not quite, and then you add a threatening presence like a low, dark, ominous tone. The high sound is supposed to remind you of something comforting while the low noise sounds like something big and dangerous. This creates cognitive dissonance. Listen to the version of 'I've got no strings' from 'Avengers 2: Age of Ultron.

In Marvel's Age of Ultron we are introduced to an old familiar toon from Disney's movie Pinocchio, which is about a little puppet boy who wants to be real. Originally, this song was Pinocchio's way of expressing happiness that he was turned into a real boy, however in Age of Ultron his song is twisted into an unsettling theme for the rise of Ultron. In many ways, the main outstanding characteristic of creepy music is that it is familiar... but twisted.


Suspenseful - Halloween Theme

Suspense in music is the act of creating tension in the listener's ears. A wonderful example of that is the Jaws Theme where two notes are low and deep, and they come in at seemingly random. But everyone knows about that type of suspense. We are going to focus on a more obscure type of suspense. That is, the suspense generated from reoccurring uneven rhythm patterns.

One way in which composers often provoke suspense in their listeners is through rhythm. Slight metric changes or increase in tempo in a repeated theme create discomfort associated with uncertainty and suspense. An example of this is the 2018 Halloween theme song. Notice the odd tempo. One technique that Halloween uses is the tresillo rhythm. This is an Afro-Caribbean beat that fits an extra beat into a measure of music. This destabilizes the music and subconsciously sets the listener on edge.


Mystery - Harry Potter

Another flavorful aspect of scary music is the element of mystery. This feeling is often evoked by odd intervals and harmonic ambiguity, which just means that the composer uses chord progressions that take away the listener's sense of a home key. One iconic example is the Harry Potter theme song. This piece is surprisingly hard to hum because the melody incorporates so many unusual intervals.


Sinister - Phantom of the Opera

Although most scary music is known for its terrifying imagery and horrific characters, there is one category that may not always involve such obvious displays of evil. This is the category of sinister music. Unlike suspenseful or creepy music, sinister music often relates to an unknowing innocent character who may not even suspect evil intent from the protagonist. The Phantom of the Opera is a great example, using dark tones and chromaticism to leave an eerie taste in the listeners mouth while simultaneously not sounding as overtly scary.


Disturbing - Perrot Lunaire

Among the many ways to describe scary music, the title disturbing tends to stand out. This is because there are unlimited possibilities and ways to disturb an audience. If one piece has elements of creepy music, or another incorporates suspense, disturbing music takes the cake and includes them all. The combination of twisted familiarity, odd rhythmic shifts, harmonic ambiguity, and deep menacing tones create a work of art that is downright demented. Perrot Lunaire by Schoenberg is one of the earliest examples of this particular category of music when it was still in its experimental phase.


Jump Scare - Surprise Symphony

In modern scary movies, or just movie scares in general, the most common way to get an audience to react in immediate fear is through the use of jump scares. It has become a staple in horror movies and it almost seems they aren't complete without one. But where does it come from? Where did first start to gain popularity?

While Haydn's Surprise Symphony may not strike you as scary, this piece is important historically as one of the first pieces composed with an intentional jump scare. Haydn's intent was comedic and most people enjoyed getting a good laugh when the sudden bursts from the orchestra woke up sleeping audience members. While this is not exactly our idea of a modern jump scare, Haydn started a trend and the modern jump scare music we experience today can be traced back to this piece.


Horror - The Shining

Remember Dies Irae? Well it's back and in full force. The Shining is the perfect example of horror. With a movie who's main theme is the Dies Irae, you know bad things are about to happen. It also introduces a lot of random noises throughout the piece which add to the unsettled horror feeling of The Shining.



What Makes Scary Music Scary?

You're going to want a piano or keyboard app for this next part.

Making music scary is a rather difficult task. It's easy to fall into the 'tonal trap' so to speak.

We naturally want to make something that is enjoyable to listen to, but scary isn't meant to be enjoyable.

Arguably, the best starting point is using tonal dissonance.


Dissonant Intervals:

Some intervals (the distance between notes) that sound good are the Perfect Fifth, in this case C and G:

and the Perfect Fourth, in this case C and F:

But notice that there there is a little black key in between.

It's F#/Gb.

If we play that and the C below, we get a Tritone:

Tonal dissonance is when two or notes played together clash. The sound waves don't line up and it is very un pleasing to the ear. They are nonlinear tones.

Dissonant literally mans "harmonically unresolved."

There are even rumors that the tritone was outlawed back in the day by the Catholic Church because it was so dissonant. They called it the devil's chord.

Listen for the tritone on the violin 18 seconds in.

This is a dance with death so it has to be scary. They made excellent use of the tritone to express that.

Here are some more intervals to work with when trying to get pretty good dissonance.

Minor Second which is only a semi tone away (half step):

The minor is iconic in the 'Jaws' movie.


Major Sevenths which are just under an octave:

Minor Sixths which are just over a perfect fifth:

And the Minor Third:

Let's move this forward with dissonant chords.


Dissonant Chords:

We're moving beyond just two notes now.

This is the meat and potatoes of music. This takes the intervals from before and combines them to make truly horrifying sounds.

Let's get right into it.

There's the Augmented Triad:

Notice the minor sixth between the C and the G#.

The Diminished Triad:

We have a very dissonant chord with two minor thirds. One between the C and Eb, and another between Eb and Gb.

Now throw a Major Seventh on top of it:

This throws everything all wack. There is even more dissonance because of that major seventh.

This effectively creates four different intervals of dissonance.

Then there is an X-cell-Chromatic Tetrachord:

Notice how they are all a major seventh away. But if we put them all next together, B,C,C#,D, they are all minor seconds. This is extreme dissonance is iconic in the 'Psycho' shower attack.

In the shower attack, it is also a classic example of using music to mimic the human scream.

Other things that make music scary are:



How does scary music affect the brain?

In many ways, our experience with scary music can be traced back to the human brain. This then begs the question, how does our brain regulate fear? In a scientific journal by Gosselin et all., 2005, researchers found a correlation between fear and the amygdala portion of the brain.

They explain that "the involvement of the amygdala in processing scary music derives from the study of patients with unilateral resection of the anteromedian part of the temporal lobe, resulting from neurosurgical resection for the treatment of epilepsy." Using this information, they were able to pinpoint the exact region of the brain that is affected by scary music.

Our ability to process emotions such as fear stem from a small region of the brain called the amygdala. This part of the brain is located deep in the cerebral hemisphere and near the tip of the brain stem. When we experience something frightening, the amygdala sends signals to the hippocampus, which regulates the fight or flight response.


There are a number of ways our body responds to fear:

As outlined in an article by Medical News Today, breathing and heart rate both increase. Peripheral blood vessels constrict (like those in the skin) while central blood vessels (around major organs) dilate and are filled with oxygen and nutrients. Muscles are pumped with blood and prepared for action and glucose levels rise allowing for an immediate source of energy. One neat fact is that the muscles at the base of each hair tighten causing philoerection, also known as goosebumps.


While these are all interesting facts concerning the fear response, they do not explain why people tend to enjoy fear provoking things such as horror movies and skydiving. So the question is: why do people like things that scare them? In Psychology Today, Dr. Christopher Dwyer gives us five reasons people enjoy being afraid.

In his article, he explains that people tend to enjoy "safe" fear, something that produces a fear response, but is limited by their logical reasoning that they are safe. This limiting factor is the hippocampus part of the brain telling the amygdala that the person is safe.

The next reason people enjoy fear is because it produces a chemical "flood" of endorphins and dopamine, feelings which after the fear aspect has been limited by the hippocampus, leave us in a state of euphoria.

Subsequently, people experience a sense of self satisfaction when they endure something scary and thus enjoy the process of overcoming their fears.

The fourth reason is that experiencing something frightening with another person directs our feelings of euphoria onto that person and causes both people to feel close and connected.

Lastly, Dr. Dwyer mentions curiosity as a possible benefit to encountering something frightening. People like their world to makes sense and some seek to push the boundary of what they know, gaining pleasure from finding and overcoming new things that scare them.

Now that a person's propensity to enjoy something scary makes more sense, we can begin to understand why scary music is so widely appreciated and valuable to society.


Why does scary music play in Video Games?

We've talked a lot about movies, but what about video games?

When it comes to scary video game music, simplicity is key.

Our brain is amazing at filling in extra stuff whether it needs to be there or not.

Scary music in video games take advantage of this because the player is in control. They are the ones making the logical and irrational decisions. Not some character in a movie.

That being said, composers like to stick to very basic sounds and let the human brain do what it does best.

Imagine.

These are simple sounds designed to get a Minecraft player to make quick and frantic decisions. It gets the heart racing so that the player is on edge and very jumpy.

This can cause a person to fall into some lava or quickly turn the corner into an explosive creeper.

But it can be more consistent than random noises that just pop up here and there.

A composer can still keep it simple and scare you to the bone.

Did you jump?

This is an old game called Slender Man that is designed around the jump scare.

You have to collect all eight pages before slender man catches you.

He doesn't start until you take one, but as soon as you take it, there is no mistake that he is coming. He gets progressively more aggressive the more pages you take.

The game starts completely quiet except for the rustling of leaves under your feet. It's dark and all you have is a flashlight.

You take the first page and then...

Boom... boom... boom... boom...

The steps of slender man getting closer.

Make a wrong turn and you walk right into him. You shoot straight up and scream.

Game Over.

This use is incredible, but so simple. Slender man's location is reflected in the steady pulse of the bass drum getting louder when he is closer and softer when he is farther.

The player knows this and when the consistent drum is loud, the fight-or-flight response is activated. Naturally, people opt for the flight because there is no means of fighting. This causes people to make very quick and emotionally driven decisions.

But scary music can actually be musical.

Notice how there is a big drum again?

Again, it represents a big threat coming for you.

Here, it's a mixture of traditional orchestra and modern electric noises to give that sci-fi scare.

It's got more going on because there is more than one threat.

There are several things out to get you sou the music has more to it to represent that.

However, it's Halo, so you're the awesome butt-kicking hero and the violin track still shows that.

Here's a place where you're not kicking butt.

Alien Isolation borrows heavily from the movies.

It goes more into suspense and horror than the others.

It uses random noises and a howling wind to represent something unnatural, but breathing.

Personally, this game scared me very good.

I jumped into a floor vent to avoid the alien. Then I turned the corner and there it was.

I screamed...


How Scary Music is Made

There are a lot of different ways to go about

For this composition, not going to get too complicated.

We are going to be in the key of A minor which means we will have no sharps or flats.

Let's stick to a simple chord progression.

We are going to be doing the minor i, minor iv, dim ii, and minor v.

Half way through we are going to do a little twist and modulate to the key a tritone away which is Eb minor. That has six flats, so our string players aren't going to be very happy.

However, it does add an interesting flavor because we are in a whole different key that is a tritone away from home. That's pretty creepy.

The bass is going to be the simplest. We're going to give him whole notes.

The piano has some work to do in the right hand playing crazy arpeggios while doing whole note chords in the left. The arpeggios give a sense of being lost and confused while the left hand works with the string-bass to give this feeling of something big lurking in the darkness. Something trying to get you.

We will be utilizing the major seventh in a lot of these chords to add that extra touch of dissonance.

The violin and cello are going to be switching on and off with the melody and playing some syncopated rhythms.

The back and fourth of the violin and cello sounds like a victim pleading with their tormentor. The violin sometimes whimpers while the cello has a very loud and harsh response.

If you follow that, then you'll get something like this:

Sheet music

If you want to have a look at some other scary music, check it out below:

Sheet music

Sheet music


So to sum everything up, scary music is a composition with an intentional feeling represented whether that be fear, mystery, horror, or creepy. Scary music uses dissonance, simplicity, and musical extremes in terms of range and dynamics in order to convey these emotions. If you want to get started on your own musical journey, Brook Fine Arts can help you get there. Everyone Great has a beginning.

Thank you for reading! Be sure to check out our other blogs and check weekly for more interesting content.

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