What makes horror movie music so scary? It’s not always just the spooky film score that plays when the villain comes on screen. Finding the right sounds that will make audiences jump out of their seats can be more difficult than you think. We looked into the tactics being used by audio experts today that help turn a scary scene...into a terrifying one.
The music in a film is what moves the audience and enhances the emotional experience. When paired with the right visuals, a filmmaker can influence the meaning on the screen and how a viewer feels about it. The horror genre is about raw, visceral emotion. It targets the basic human fears whether that’s rooted in the current cultural anxieties, or provoking the primal flight or fight response.
If you are a fan of the genre, or have ever been scared by a horror flick, then you know horror film music is the most frightening aspect of it. Sure, a creepy mask or a terrifying chase scene gets the blood pumping. But a horror film would be nothing without a creaking door, screeching violins, or a blood-curdling scream. No other genre can manipulate it’s audience with sound design the way horror can.
Minor Keys and Dissonance
Emotional horror is all the rage right now. From this year's Hereditary to 2017's Get Out, audiences are being pulled into what the characters are feeling during those scary moments on screen. In Westernized music, we compose music through keys that convey mood and emotion. A major key gives off a feeling of positivity and general happiness. A minor key is a variation of the major key, usually lowered a few steps. This gives off a more dark or sad emotion. To some, it can even sound “off”, like something isn’t right. You can even take a piece composed in a major key and transcribe it to a minor key, changing the association of what may have been a happy piece into an ominous one. This is the feeling you want to create when creating or choosing horror film music.
Another way to describe the uneasy feeling you want in a horror film music is consonance vs. dissonance, or pleasant vs. unpleasant. Dissonant music sounds unstable and conveys a feeling of grief and conflict. The reason is because dissonant music often goes unresolved. This refers to how a piece of music usually has a sensible beginning and end. With dissonant music, that structure can be lost, thus creating a strained or even anxious feeling.
This is where you want your audience to be: in a state of unrest, unsure of what’s to come. Without resolution in the music, the audience cannot predict what is going to happen next. Within that uncertainty is where scares become most effective.
Using Sound Effects Like a Pro
It’s not only the eerie score that makes a horror film terrifying. Sound effects are a huge component of creating genuinely scary sound design. It is important though that you spend time and effort planning where and what types of effects you will be using. You’re not going to make an audience jump if the screams are unrealistic and cheesy. So making sure your sound effects are high quality and convincing is important.
If you don’t have the equipment to record your own spooky sounds, purchasing royalty free sound effects is an easy and cost-effective way to go. Just like royalty free music, you can buy a track under a usage license and then use it as many times as you need. But there are also other types of ambient sound effects that you can use to make your horror project as scary as possible. Besides an isolated sound effect that only works efficiently when mixed and edited with the visuals, there are other sound design options that have a more consistent effect. Low drones, for example, create a creepy feeling that can last throughout an entire film. Ambient humming, mechanical movements, and moans are sounds that boost the level of scariness.
Have you heard about Infrasound?
One way to make that creepy feeling is a sound design technique that you can’t actually hear at all. There are levels of sound waves that exists outside the range of the human ear that still have an effect on you. This phenomenon is called infrasound.
So to create this seemingly silent sound design, you want to get a track that is 19 Hz or lower.
The levels of these sound wave frequencies are so low your ear can’t pick up on it, but you feel it physically. It can lead to symptoms such as uneasiness, dizziness, and general discomfort. When there’s a physical change in the body without seeing or hearing anything, it can lead people to think supernatural forces are at work. In fact, evidence of infrasound have been found in areas which are considered haunted. The common frequency at which humans stop hearing sound waves is about 20 Hz. So to create this seemingly silent sound design, you want to get a track that is 19 Hz or lower. With this knowledge, you can make your audience feel fear without them knowing why. It can enhance your visuals and horror film music experience.
Expectations are made in the edit room.
To get a good scare, you have to play off the audience’s expectation. Perhaps the most important feature in creating scary horror film music, is how you edit the images on screen with the sounds you have at your disposal. To illustrate this, let’s walk through some scenarios of how you can edit your video and sound to manage expectation of the audience.
If you begin to build up dissonant violins, the audience is going to expect a scare to come at the end of it. You could add a frightening action that matches your eerie violins. Or, you could cut that expectation by not ending the sequence with a scare. The audience is now on the edge of their seat. You’ve put them in a place of confusion. You’ve disrupted this pattern of the film music matching the mood.
Just when the audience thinks the scary part is over, a jump scare immediately after the violins cut, when the audience isn’t ready. That being said, you can’t do this for every scare sequence, or else you’ll just end up confusing the viewers. Look no further than 1971’s Carrie and the original Friday the 13th(1980). These filmmakers thought it was important to get one last shot in before credits rolled in order to make sure the audiences left with their heart pumping. The music they overlayed made sure that they were allowed to relax for just a second before….
Finding the Creepy Combination
Sometimes creating that perfect horror scene is all about getting the scariest sounds to go with the scariest images. No tricks here except good old fashioned terror. If you find a great collection or composer that does a bang up job creating the sounds and atmosphere that support your vision, you've hit the jackpot. Over the last month we have added over 10 new track collections that are specifically made to supply horror films. Adding that extra layer of music or ambient sound effect to your scenes will almost always create more fear, making them more effective and horrifying.
No matter what kind of horror project you are working on, the sound design is going to determine how effective it is. Keep in mind these tips when scoring your horror film so you can get the maximum scare from your audience.