Play It Louder: Music in Horror Films | Midnight Pulp

Play It Louder: Music in Horror Films

Ève Landry October 9, 2017 October 9th, 2017


Ever tried to watch a horror film on mute? Don’t. Or do, if you’ve been on the hunt for a comedy and couldn’t find one. Music is an essential part of any good scare. From classical string orchestras to the 70’s synthesizer “revolution,” horror scores and soundtracks have their own history. So how did we get to where we are today?

Origins of Horror Music

The horror genre started during the silent era as any other. While most of the motion pictures didn’t feature live music, Nosferatu : A symphony of horror featured what is to be named the first original horror score composed by Hans Erdmann. Played live by a full orchestra, the 1922 production is where we get the traditional classic music scare movies combo-wombo.

Up until the 70’s shift in horror music, the film industry seemed to follow the Baroque opera’s guidelines for terror scenes. Big concertos for suspensions and melodic or harmonic phrases on revelations. Dissonance and motifs, to be introduced by Bernard Herrmann’s in Psycho (1960), hadn’t made an entry yet. Horror scores were simply made to duplicate the vocal line and narration of the film.

All kneel for the synthesizer

(Contamination, 1980)

Although electronically produced music had been available ever since the silent era, the 70’s entered a new player: the synthesizer. As cheap goes, the synth was the holy grail. The film industry was blessed with a new technology capable of producing entire scores without a whole cast of musicians. Solo composer or film’s directors themselves could now do it all.

Being a real attraction for cheaper productions, the rising of the synthesizer created a long history of love between electronic music and horror films. Tim Krog’s The Boogeyman (1980) is a beautiful example of a low-key electronic soundtrack. With the bringing of reverb and white noise also came classic pieces like George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) and the practice of modifying library orchestral tracks. Electronic vibes had the power of adding a hallucinatory edge to horror scores as in Luigi Cozzi’s Contamination (1980).

Opening to various music

As the synthesizer was popularized throughout many musical genres, so were horror scores. During the 80’s, the 90’s, and up to contemporary times, horror flicks have mingle with anything from grunge music to power pop. Always relying on shocking contrasts, the music almost always playing a supporting role in the genre.

Sound of science

Why do we get so jumpy when Hitchcock’s Psycho‘s violins screech ? Don’t worry folks, they made studies on that matter too. It’s been shown that “harsh, discordant and unexpected sounds used in horror soundtracks imitate the screams of frightened animals” and, thus “trigger our fear of being chased by dangerous predators. Things that feel harsh and unfamiliar manipulate us emotionally.”

Get on my nerves, please.

No matter if you prefer classical music fueled slasher films or electronically pulsatory alien invasion flicks, horror scores concentrate on one thing: making us jump. From dissonance to carefully placed silence, creating horror scores is an art-form. Building tension and suspense proves to be a hard thing to achieve, but when done right, it give us only one option…

Play it louder.

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