Throughout history, music has been used as a medium to elevate the spirit in a liturgical setting, served as entertainment, as well as medicinal therapy. Music has also had a deep connection with inciting fear to the masses. Audiences and composers understand the power that music has over the psyche of the listener. In the spirit of Halloween, we will look at music’s role in film.
During the Middle Ages, use of the tritone, often referred to as “the devil’s interval,” was banned in liturgical music. Unlike the misleading name, the tritone consists of only two notes but is separated by three whole steps in music. Some speculate that it is a mocking of the Holy Trinity. When you hear both notes together, this particular interval causes uneasiness and discomfort to the listener. It is no surprise then that many films heavily use this interval within a composition to move the audience to feel unbalanced. Some people even allege they hear the interval playing in a drone, trance-like manner throughout the entirety of a movie to cause an hour and half of utter fright.
Regarding the tonality of a horror film score, composers use dissonance to their advantage. Dissonant chords cause the audience to feel unstable and need to resolve harmonically. Throughout music history, every great composer utilized dissonance to take the listener on a musical journey. It was how they took the audience to the resolution that separated the good composers from the great composers. The general concept behind dissonance is that it elicits a feeling that something is wrong – a concept prevalent in every horror film.
The juxtaposition of volume is a musical device always employed in cinema. Often times, the audience will jump at the sudden rush of musical notes. The famous shower scene in the film “Psycho” had audiences reeling in fear due in large part to this very musical device.
As music continues to progress, instruments are being created to give us different timbres. Relevant composers will even make use of untraditional instruments or untraditional playing methods. Composer Krysztof Penderecki’s famous song “Threnody” was used in the popular film “The Shining.”
My top six horror film pics using these fear-inducing musical schemes are:
- Insidious – This particular film begins with perhaps the most memorable and frightening opening credits. The music during the opening credits is directly responsible for this reason.
- Halloween – The simple Michael Myers melody that we all know is perhaps the most recognizable theme song for any antagonist in a horror film genre. Darth Vader’s “Imperial March” is probably the only song that better associates a character with a theme song.
- The Wizard of Oz “The Witches’ Theme” – Before horror film fanatics throw a fit, what other children’s film allows a beloved main character to be ripped to shreds? Having produced, directed, choreographed and music directed the stage production many times, the dissonant chords used for the Wicked Witch caused tremendous fear in the four-year-olds that were sure to attend this production.
- The Shining – During this film, the use of the devil’s interval, dissonance, and Threnody is absolutely masterful.
- Jaws – The use of rests in this two-note theme is absolutely incredible. This song continues to instill great panic to beach-goers’ worldwide.
- Psycho – Already mentioned earlier, no musical score employs the musical devices mentioned earlier better than this film. It continues to set the standard for film writing. Be sure to thank Bernard Hermann for composing the greatest horror film soundtrack ever written!
Director of Music
Anna Maria College
*Originally appeared in Worcester Magazine in October 2016