Jarring violins, suspended silence and eerie synths can only mean one thing… the bad guy is hiding around that corner. Music is an essential part of the horror genre, but what is it that makes a horror soundtrack effective and memorable?
It turns out that there is actually a science behind creating a chilling soundtrack. There are certain sounds that are predetermined to make our skin crawl. Clashing piano notes, screeching violins and abrupt pitch changes all trigger our instinct that something isn’t quite right. These kinds of disjointed sounds mimic that of a shrieking animal in pain, informing us that a predator is nearby.
This is why the Insidious and The Conjuring soundtrack has our hair standing on end before we even catch sight of the demon-like creatures lurking in the shadows. We are already clued in from the shrieking violins that trouble is on the way.
While jarring sounds trigger a fight or flight response, silence in movies can be equally unsettling.
One film that stands out in particular as using silence effectively is Robert Eggers’ The Witch. Long, uneventful scenes are accompanied with long, dragged out silences, and we are kept in a state of suspense the whole time. The music itself then takes on the role of the Witch or Satan, who we catch no more than a glimpse of in the film. The silence thus signifies the absence of a tangible monster and yet the snippets of music indicate the presence of an evil lurking in the shadows.
When asked by The Independent what music adds to a film, The Witch‘s composer replied: “I would say that in very general terms, sound is the external world and music is the internal world. If you want the audience inside the character’s head? If you do, push the music. But if you want the audience to focus on the exterior world, you push the sound.”
This makes sense if you compare the jolting violins of Jaws to the more intricately devised film score for the chilling psychological horror Suspiria. While the former uses sound to indicate the presence of an outside threat, the later uses music to portray the trauma of a horror that is very much internal. Both soundtracks are extraordinarily effective and yet the two composers have taken an entirely different approach to orchestrating their respective thematic horrors.
In conclusion, music in horror seems to be most effective when it taps into our primal instincts or toys with our darker internal psychology. When used effectively, silence seems to be the most frightening music of them all. After all, it is not the monster’s face which terrifies, but the prospect of something unseen hiding in the shadows that truly causes our hair to stand on end.