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Another Horror Story from the Music Industry

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.

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Comment by James Semple on July 14, 2008 at 7:18am
Oh, another scale I like using for this is the Lydian Minor (4th mode of Harmonic Minor) which gives you 1 2 b3 #4 5 6 b7. Which is great to use for dropping from the 5th to the #4.
Comment by Mike Torr on May 14, 2008 at 4:26pm
Thanks for your great contributions Adrian! I thought your analysis of Frankenstein was intriguing, and plenty of other food for thought in there too.
Comment by Adrian Ellis on May 14, 2008 at 12:53pm
Cool post as always, James, and some interesting responses.

Another classic cliche, which was probably innovative not too long ago, is the use of children's voices (choir or solo) and/or lullaby-like tunes. The psychological impact is that you are hearing something in stark contrast to the action on-screen.

Horror films often have a sociological subtext to them - something that addresses our fears, or something that tries to strike fear for the purposes of teaching a moral lesson. Consider the classic slasher flicks - who gets the knife? The promiscuous girl, having sex out of wedlock in the backseat of her bf's Camarro. The theme of redemption usually factors in - something has to be remedied so that the curse can be lifted, or for the scourge to end. There are other things too, and you can have some fun trying to analyze beyond just a fear of the unknown. What deep fears do films address, how are they sociologically motivated? Just why are children so damned scary? Think about it... even Alien could be seen as the ultimate in Child-fear based horror - the eruption of a living being from our stomachs... are we secretly afraid that the arrival of a child could destroy our contented existence? Ok, bear with me, I have some theories... (giggles hysterically, retreats to basement laboratory...)

Frankenstein is one of my favorites for this. One reading could be that Prof's Frankenstein's monster is his addiction to his work - obsession with success and fame. His work (the monster, the obsession) takes over his life completely, and ends up (literally and metaphorically) destroying all that he loves. It might be a cautionary tale about obsession and self-absorption - that you need to balance your life.

Anyways, the reason I bring this up is how these things relate to the music. There are all these conventions and musical techniques, but I find it is very helpful to start out with themes and motives (character/thematic motives in the film). From there, once you have analyzed the film, you can draw literary parallels that can inform your music. A horror film I worked on dealt in part with a possession or dual personality. I turned this into a musical idea using polytonality - two scales which created a dissonance, to reflect the dissonance of that character. Horner uses a piano in the scene where they find the little girl in the ravaged colony - to hearken Earth, home - the piano being an instrument associated with domesticity - to create a very specific feeling and emotional reaction.

When working with scene, you can use the words that describe what's happening, and directly apply them musically. A theme can be destroyed, fragmented, shocked, withered, warped, reversed, run, fall... any number of things... as in Hermann's stabbing strings in the shower scene from Psycho. Although not a horror movie, I was impressed by the idea that William's used in SW ep. 3 - as Anakin is slowly poisoned by the Dark Side, William's systematically destroys the 'Across the Stars' theme, until it finally modulates into the Empire theme.

Just some thoughts - working methods I found helpful in organizing a film and staying consistent in terms of overall cohesiveness... what do you guys do?
Comment by James Semple on May 9, 2008 at 2:13pm
Brian, I've been working more on ambient game/audiobook soundtracks for the moment. Spotting a horror movie is quite interesting in terms of sometimes giving things away. In fact I've generally noticed that the music often builds the absolute most tension when a scene turns out to be a false alarm. Often the real threats are brought in deliberately when the music is saying nothing tense at all.

Thank you very much for the tip on Alien. I have that recent Quadrilogy boxed set so hopefully that includes the version you mention. I have been using the first three Alien soundtracks as inspiration (don't underestimate that third soundtrack ... it's Eliot Goldenthal again!)

Funnily enough, the last couple of Harry Potter soundtracks also include a fair amount of horror/tension music. Dementors in the Underpass is fairly stereotypical horror music.

Mike, good tip there on Edward Scissorhands. I think I only have the soundtrack CD... must buy DVD now.
Comment by Mike Torr on May 9, 2008 at 2:00pm
Thanks for the tip, Brian - I don't have a copy of any of the Alien films, so you've just given me a great reason to go and get that box set. Order will be placed on Amazon forthwith! :)

There are other examples of DVDs that allow a music-only viewing. The Cell is one. Also the Edward Scissorhands DVD has a hybrid version of this feature, in that selecting Elfman's commentary also brings the music level right up and the other sounds almost out completely.
Comment by James Semple on May 9, 2008 at 10:49am
Excellent comments guys.

Mike, I have now got most of the Interview with the Vampire soundtrack. It's only available (on iTunes) as a partial album and I'm buying it one song at a time. I really like a lot of Goldenthal's work (with the exception of the Batman films) and this is great stuff. I have ordered the CD from Amazon but it might be a while before it turns up.

Chris, how could I forget that technique. I've been scoring a short film this week and I used a similar idea in a very brief sting/build-up to help raise the tension. I included delayed, distorted and pitch-shifted voices and also about 1 minute of dialog compressed down into 3-4 seconds. Combined with random woodwind noises, trem strings and brass swells it worked great.
Comment by Mike Torr on May 8, 2008 at 6:37am
Thanks again James for an interesting read! I sometimes sit at the piano and play random sequences of chord inversions, and often I go for the "horror" target. Sometimes I hit it. It's interesting, though, how a purely random approach usually fails. Music can sound uncontrolled but in fact be meticulously planned (listen to Captain Beefheart, for example). Beyond the things I know work (e.g. the polychords you mentioned), my fingers sometimes find other surprisingly-effective changes that seem to work in this respect. Often, analysis reveals some kind of relationship between to consecutive chords that I hadn't anticipated. For example, I'll play what is usually a standard major cadence, but use a different inversion and introduce an unrelated bass note - and sometimes it ends up crossing over to a more minor mode or scale. This is one of the things I love about our twelve-tone system: there are so many complex symettries and combinations available. It reminds me a little of the current ideas in particle physics :|

r.e. suspense: one of the most unusual approaches I ever heard to this was in the classic "Suspiria" - music by the band called Goblin, I recall. There's a standard "edging down a passage" sequence in that, where you'd normally expect quiet string clusters or tremolos. Instead, you get the rock band at full volume, singing "la la la la..." in demonic voices. It turns the conventions on their heads, and is actually so harrowing that it terrifies you, and in a warped way, gets the job done.

There are some lovely examples of brass and woodwind writing for horror in Goldenthal's "Interview With The Vampire" score, by the way. Also, regarding the "Phantom of the Opera" motif, I was reminded of the comical moment in Back to the Future Part II, where Doc Brown backs away from Marty and leans on the keyboard of his pipe organ. As he talks, he shifts sideways, clutching the manual, and the chords progress upward in fine classic horror style. Really funny!

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