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What makes a song scary?

What makes a song scary?
Written by

James Picken

Published

October 17, 2022

Category

Music +

Whether it’s a spooky semitone or a menacing melody - what features of a song can spark fear?

October is home to the scariest night of the year - Halloween. Whether you’re a trick-or-treater, a horror movie binger or hitting the town, it’s a night of fun and fear. 

At Startle, we know that music can make a huge difference to how you feel and behave. As with all holidays, it wouldn’t be the same without some of the most iconic seasonal songs (check out our Change the Music, Change the Experience Halloween edition to see how much of a difference the right song makes). Throughout the years, there’s been countless recognisable scary tunes - we’ve all got that one song that immediately gives us goosebumps. But is it just by association, or is there a formula for making a terrifying tune?

So, what does it take?

The first frightening feature of a ‘scary’ song to note is the idea of dissonance. This means a lack of harmonic coherence between musical notes, and can make us feel instinctively unnerved. 

This was echoed by John Sloboda, a professor of music psychology at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama: 

When we hear something dissonant, it gives you a little bit of an emotional frisson, because it's strange and unexpected.”

John’s main example of this dissonance in horror songs is a tritone, which he compares to being the musical equivalent of “the bottom of a staircase that failed to mention it’s missing its last step.” A tritone is an interval made up of two notes - in each diatonic scale there is only one tritone, and it occurs between the fourth and seventh degrees of the scale. If you’ve not got a music theory mind, it sounds bad to the human ear as the pitches aren’t harmonious together. In fact, there were rumours that the tritone was banned from churches due to its association with the devil, earning it the nickname of “The Devil’s Interval” - pretty spooky. 

This dissonance with clashing notes is often used in combination with melodies that move chromatically (up and down by semitone), leading us to feel scared, or at least uncomfortable. This is even more effective if a minor key is used - a major key can give off a feeling of positivity, whereas minor keys can sound ‘off’, and provide a darker tone.

If a song is able to build up tension and create a lack of ear-comfort, it seems to be a winning combination in making a ‘scary’ song. 

The Jaws theme song is a great example of this. The tension builds rhythmically, starting off slow and building in speed towards its climax - it feels unrelenting. 

The semitone leitmotif in the lower strings that everyone thinks of when the word ‘Jaws’ is mentioned, in combination with the other sections of the orchestra, create an ambiguous tonal centre, leading to an unsettled atmosphere as the music doesn’t necessarily have a clear harmonic ‘base’. Us listeners like harmony and order, sparking fear if it’s not present. 

But the Jaws theme tune also demonstrates another factor which can make a song ‘scary’ - the cultural connotations it has. The song uses similar textures and instrumentations to Bernard Hermann’s Psycho score, which many consider the ultimate ‘scary’ soundtrack. 

It’s also important to consider the use of instruments. In ‘scary’ songs, unusual instruments like theremins and waterphones are used - these are non-traditional for the music we listen to on the day-to-day, and can make us feel a little spooked. 

Why do we have a physical response to scary music?

Ever listened to a specific chilling film score and felt yourself get goosebumps? Not everyone experiences this, and researcher Matthew Sachs says that people who get the chills from a song have an enhanced ability to experience intense emotions. Somewhere between a half to two thirds of the population can have this response, and those who do get the shivers have a higher volume of fibres that connect their auditory cortex to the areas associated with emotional processing, which means the two areas communicate better. So if you’ve ever gotten the heebie-jeebies from a spooky song, it’s just an emotional, instinctual response. 

We asked a couple of the Startle team if they had a song that scares them the most. Here were their responses…

So there you have it - it seems the key to a ‘scary’ song is to create a lack of comfort for the listener, as well as some of the cultural connotations we have associated with them. 

To get into the spooky spirit, why not check out our playlist on Spotify, and schedule in the Startle playlist Halloween Party in your Studio app?

What makes a song scary?

James Picken

Creative Director at Startle. It's my job to produce and execute our music output, making sure everything is sounding, feeling and performing just right for our customers. When I'm not doing this, you can find me either walking my dog, remixing 90s divas on Logic Pro X, returning overdue library books or throwing weights about in the gym.

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