Well... actually this is about real horror stories and the distinctive music written to accompany them.
I've been writing some horror music for a while now but the more I dig into it the more I realise how distinctive this field of music really is. I make no claim to be an expert here and as always I'm really hoping to open the floor for others to offer their opinions.
Now horror music often shares ideas with many other genres. In many forms of horror there is a strong romantic element and as such, lush romantic or tragic themes are played throughout. Similarly it also incorporates the usual kind of music for adventure, discovery, loss and even celebration. Theme and locale will usually play a part here (such as the industrial/military music in Aliens).
Horror films of course specialise in tension and shock moments... with one very often one leading into the other. Due to the nature of the film, often they will create tension in scenes that would normally be scored in different ways. A romantic meeting at night will be scored with tension music to suggest that our protagonists might be in danger.
So, without belabouring the point here, we understand that with horror films (or audio books or computer games) our job is often to create a scary or tense atmosphere... but how do we do that?
For me, creating scary music has been about exploring the following ideas: -
- 'Shock' moments of quiet into loud (and vice versa)
- Extreme or grotesque use of instruments
- Dissonant harmonic ideas
Category 1: Shock Moments
So, let's begin with shock moments. These are pretty much the easiest to create. They're really all about the dynamics and often don't even need to be more than a huge percussion hit after a period of silence. Of course there's a lot of room for creativity here and you can play with this a lot. For instance, start with some normal background music at a fairly medium level and just let it drift slightly, become a little sparser and just keep dropping the dynamic over a period. At that point, bring in the big hit and make the audience jump. The hit itself doesn't need to be percussion and I often love doing this with big brass sounds. A heavy bass trombone or tuba staccato can really work wonders here but try and get something around the top end (muted horns or trumpets for instance). Woodwind rips can even feature here with the piccolo (as always) cutting right through a big orchestral hit. Oh, and the bottom notes of the piano are great for these hits!
Category 2: Grotesque Usage of Instruments
Next up is our 'grotesque use of instruments'. By this I mean generally doing all those strange things that we normally aren't supposed to do. This includes playing in extreme ranges or dynamics, playing with unusual techniques or even just doing absurd things with the instrument (like playing just the mouthpiece for a wind instrument or scraping the instrument or whatever). I'd also like to lump any unusual percussion and even sound design into this category. Where the first category was all about surprising the audience, this is all about creating scary noises!
I'd considered creating a comprehensive list here but I'd only fail spectacularly, so instead, let me provide a sampler of what might work: -
- Random glissandi or scraping on strings
- Anvils, slamming doors, wind, church bells or similar sound effects
- Random woodwind rips and runs
- Brass growls
- Loud, low sounds
I think I'd like to add a slight sub-category here of simply 'scary instruments' ... these are normally quite innocuous but in the right conditions we are socially conditioned to fear them. This would include the church organ and choirs. Thank you Jerry Goldsmith and The Omen!
Category 3: Dissonant Harmonic Ideas
Well I left the most complex subject to the end and I will definitely admit to being a beginner in this subject. While writing this kind of music and obviously listening to lots of it, the following became apparent.
Firstly, to create dissonance we use dissonant intervals. The usual suspects are all there but I would say that the b5 and b2 are the real killers here. I would say that it is probably quite possible to even create the horror sound just by emphasising these intervals but there appears to be a couple of standard methods for generating a lot of these intervals within more of a traditional structured harmonic approach.
While I can't necessarily give out a 'scale of evil' (any Bill Bailey fans here?) I have noticed a couple of scales getting used a lot. The first is the harmonic minor scale. This is interesting because many traditional horror stories came out of Eastern Europe and the harmonic minor scale is closely related to the Hungarian Minor scale (harmonic minor with a #4). In fact the Hungarian Minor scale itself is often used for vampire stories but I could argue that falls outside of horror music as it is more suggestive of locale. Still we definitely have to start with minor chords and the harmonic minor provides some nice dissonant harmonic material allowing for both diminished and augmented triads.
The other scale used a lot is the diminished scale itself. In fact I could argue that when someone first plays a diminished chord, horror music immediately springs to mind. Grab a church organ and a half-face mask and you're The Phantom of the Opera.
To start getting a little further afield, we can move to polytonality. Ideas such as minor triads a tritone apart can be very effective.
Clusters of tones and semitones are also effective here and it's worth trying out techniques with long sustained notes on the violins drifting in and out of clusters. You could argue that clusters really fall into category 2 here.
I'd also like to mention that horror melodies can really imply dissonant harmonies with lines that frequently rely on the b5th, Another scale I've used for this effect is the Locrian Natural 2 (i.e. 1 2 b3 4 b5 b6 b7) which I've used as a replacement for the Aeolian/Natural Minor to emphasise that b5 sound. You can hear this sound at 0:43 of my track Voyage.
The End ... or is it?
Well I hope this gives people some ideas and other people a chance to give ideas to me! I'd like to make a final point that reproducing grotesque effects using samples generally relies on having samples of these effects. Now I'm pleased to say that many of the commercially available libraries include a lot of these effects and at present I'm definitely using the samples in East West, Project SAM and Sonic Implants for this purpose.
It is also definitely worth checking out Project SAM's specialists libraries Flute & Piccolo FX and Woodwind FX which provide some beautifully grotesque ideas! I've used them on a new track I just added called The Trail.