There are two main areas in which music can be dark and terrifying or just get under your skin in a very spooky way. First there is music that evokes those feelings, as simple as that, for example “Danse Macabre” by Camile Saint-Saëns which is a musical piece based on the poem by Henri Cazalis that spoke about death:
Zig, zig, zig, Death in a cadence,
Striking with his heel a tomb,
Death at midnight plays a dance-tune,
Zig, zig, zig, on his violin.
The winter wind blows and the night is dark;
Moans are heard in the linden trees.
Through the gloom, white skeletons pass,
Running and leaping in their shrouds.
Zig, zig, zig, each one is frisking,
The bones of the dancers are heard to crack—
But hist! of a sudden they quit the round,
They push forward, they fly; the cock has crowed
The sounds and melodies are always reminding us that it’s not something that is simply beautiful, but it is scary as well.
Modern Dark Times
On our times music also has shown this ability to make scary sounds and create tension while still making it a pleasure to hear. These days heavy metal bands are the ones that take the most pride in these sort of feelings but one band has managed to take the prize by also wearing masks, turning into their inner demons and make amazing things with fear, death and anger as fuel to their energy as musicians, Slipknot.
In an interview with The Fader, frontman Corey Taylor said:
My whole goal was to make people, at least at first, uncomfortable. Not scare them so much, but to just put them at that sense of unease so they could really feel the level of art that was going on (…) If you can put someone off of their norm and get them out of their comfort zone, then they really experience art, to me. But it never got by us that people were really, really scared. I mean, if you’ve got a clown on the band, it’s obvious.
Music in Horror Films
All of the classics and new horror films could not have been as big as they are without the music behind the terrifying imagery. Music can create suspense in a way that no other image can, mix that with very specific sounds and effects and you’ve got yourself the formula to scare the audience.
A very good example is the classic sound at the time of the murder in Psycho which manages to build up tension in way that the audience knows something bad is going to happen, and then the high pitched strings sounds begin to cut through the audience like the knife that cuts the victim. It’s a very powerful composition that makes you feel the horror of the victim in a very brilliant way. And after that, just make you feel very unease with the tense calm of death.
This scene in particular has gone down in history as one of the most famous in horror film history due to the importance of music in it’s horror elements, without this soundtrack, the movie wouldn’t have been half of what it was, and that is an amazing achievement in art.
The same concept applies to TV shows, although there are not many horror TV shows and video games. It’s interesting because in video games music translate as a part of the game the player has to overcome, the music in a horror game can get you stressed, tense, nervous or just plane scared which can make you play worse, and that is an interesting idea to explore.
While there are amazing horror moments and creations that rely on silence or little sound, music tends to be a very important part of what makes us feel fear or horror in these examples, and it’s just another way of understanding how strong is the power of music.
Remember to check out these worksheets, this month, Halloween themed!