Da-dum, da-dum, da-dum. It’s the theme from Jaws. Two notes. It only takes two notes to know that danger is coming. As the tempo increases, so does your heart rate. Da-dum, da-dum, da-dum. Danger is coming up from the depths of the sea. Danger with sharp, sharp teeth. Da-dum, da-dum, da-dum. Without those two notes the sinister shark loses some of its deadly bite.
Why is music such an integral part of horror movies?
Take, for example, the opening sequences of the 1978 horror classic Halloween. Without the menacing piano melody, it’s just a bunch of kids walking around the suburbs. Or what about the sharp, screeching series of notes piercing through the sounds of running water as Marion Crane meets her demise in the infamous shower scene in Psycho – Hitchcock’s original slasher film? Hit the mute button and the chilling killing loses some of its impact.
“The music in Psycho has more of a character quality to it,” says Jeremy Moss – a filmmaker and assistant professor at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, who teaches a class that explores how dramatic and horror films (including Psycho, Halloween, Last House on the Left, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Funny Games) provoke viewers’ emotions.
“The shower scene is a perfect example,” says Moss. “There are so many things happening: the rhythm in which it is edited, the subtle shots of nudity, the knife, that high-pitched sound, the sounds of water in the background. There are five or six layers in that scene and music is just one of them. That’s when music is done best. The high-pitched squeals in Psycho are a key component. The sound is almost like knives stabbing in your ears.”
As a filmmaker and professor of film, Moss can be critical of movies that use music strictly to manipulate the audience. He feels that music should do more than guide the audience and tell them how to feel. It can make a scene scarier, says Moss, but you could argue that it can make the audience feel safer. Music is often welcomed as a forewarning that something scary is coming.
“I think the music should either mirror the scene, or perhaps do something more challenging, where it’s contrasting,” says Moss.
Moss cites Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left as a good example.
“The really uncanny thing about Last House on the Left is that the music is upbeat,” says Moss. “So the whole movie is really uncomfortable. The music works to play with the contradictions that the film is exploring.”
Music is such an effective tool that even when it’s absent, its presence is felt.
“There’s a lot of silence in Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” notes Moss. “For 20 minutes the soundtrack to that movie is just the sound of a chainsaw and a woman screaming.”
Studies have found that there are biological reasons why music works so well in horror movies. Certain dissonant sounds or screeching effects can make people feel uncomfortable without realizing why. High-pitched screaming sounds or low-frequency noises alert an animal part of our brains that danger is approaching and provoke anxious
reactions deep in the human subconscious.
As musicians, Tom and Laurie Reese, who perform live improvisational music to classic horror films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari or Nosferatu under the name The Reese Project, utilize the science of music theory to create a moody atmosphere.
A minor scale makes for more moody, dark-sounding music than the happy-sounding major scales. In other words, by altering just one note, the tone of the music can move from Shaun of the Dead to Dawn of the Dead.
“Mode equals mood,” says Tom Reese, flutist with The Reese Project. “A minor mode is a darker mode.”
Tom and Laurie Reese – who’ve studied horror films for years – create themes for the characters and then improvise around them during the films, creating moody abstractions or tense rhythms to fit the scene. A mysterious snake-charmer-like minor scale riff may be played as the vampire Nosferatu arises from his coffin.
Watch this clip from Nosferatu with music by The Reese Project
“I think it helps bring the audience along,” says Laurie Reese. “We want you to really feel what’s happening.”
The Reese Project’s music adds another layer to the films and, as Tom Reese says, it’s like re-reading a book and gaining new insights.
Moss, who also has collaborated with live improvisational accompaniment during the screenings of some of his films, enjoys exploring how the images and sound create new connections.
“You see the image differently depending on what the sound artist brings to it,” says Moss.
Next time you are watching a horror movie and those familiar minor scales begin to emerge from the darkness, pay attention to how the filmmaker uses the music to enhance the scene or play with your expectations. Notice how the music makes you feel. Are the hairs standing up on your arms? Are you tense? Are you anxious?
“Music definitely plays with suspense,” says Moss. “It’s shaping your emotion.”
The Reese Project performs a live improvisational score to the 1922 film Nosferatu at the Horse Inn in Lancaster on October 31 from 8-1 a.m.