How to create scary sounding music
When thinking of scary music our minds will automatically jump to classical examples like Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D-Minor”, or to famous horror soundtracks such as the Jaws soundtrack or the piercing strings from Psycho. But what is it that makes these pieces of music so terrifying to us?
Like many things in life, it is a combination of nature and nurture. Some music we have been preconditioned to perceive as spooky. For example, the Bach piece mentioned above generally wasn’t considered scary until it featured in a number of horror films leading to it becoming associated with the genre. Many cultures also have different ideas about what music is unpleasant. Styles such as Indonesian gamelan music uses instruments to create sounds that may be considered dissonant or out of tune to someone used to western classical music.
Scientists have shown that there are biological reasons why we find certain sounds unappealing. Research has shown parallels between the music in horror films and sounds that animals make, such as a baby animal calling its mother, that are naturally distressing to us. Both feature non-linear noise patterns that are unpleasant to our ears.
So how do you make music sound scary? Whether you are writing music for a horror film or just want to add a spooky element to your latest track, these tips will help you get the sound you’re after!
Use certain notes, intervals, and chords
As a general rule for creating spooky sounding music, you should make use of minor chords and dissonant sounds. These have traditionally been associated with darker and sadder music, whereas major chords are considered nicer sounding and used when aiming for upbeat, happy music.
Perhaps the most famous scary interval is known as the “Devil’s tritone”. Although it is an urban legend that it was at one point banned, it has long been used to create a foreboding atmosphere in pieces of music. One of the most famous uses was in "Danse Macabre".
The Devil’s tritone and other dissonant intervals can be used to form certain chords that have become standards in horror film music. Chords containing a minor third and major seventh, major or minor chords which contain a perfect fifth and a #4 or #11 interval, and chord clusters are examples that are commonly used in scary music.
Use techniques that add dissonance
There are also a number of techniques you can use in your songwriting to create dissonance and harsh sounding music such as modulations, ostinato and unusual time signatures.
Adding dissonance through modulation can be achieved using a number of different techniques, depending on how you are creating your music. If composing for orchestral instruments you can add tremolos and vibratos to your score to create spooky sounding noises and fluctuations. Similar effects can be created with synthesizers or on DAWs by using pitch bend wheels or automation to toggle the sounds. There are also a range of effects pedals and hardware that can be used for modulations.
Unusual and rarer time signatures can often sound very strange and offputting, and as such, they are perfect for a horror soundtrack or darker piece of music. While pop music generally uses fairly conventional time signatures such as 4/4 or 6/8, try experimenting with writing music in 5/4 or 11/8 to really mess with your audience.
An ostinato is a technique that has been used everywhere from famous classical compositions to movie soundtracks such as the one for “Halloween” to spooky, lo-fi Memphis rap (such as the Lord Infamous song above). Ostinato is essentially a melody or rhythm that is repeated throughout a song and using high pitched piano or bell sounds provide the creepiest results.
Replicate scary real-life sounds
This is one of the more difficult, yet highly creative ways of making a composition scary sounding. If you want to give a foreboding atmosphere to your track then you can try to recreate classic horror movie tropes using live instruments.
Spooky sounds such as ticking clocks, thunder, bones jangling or footsteps can be recreated with drums and percussion instruments. Rhythmic, pulsing parts that sound like a loud heartbeat can be replicated with bass instruments while high pitched strings or woodwinds are great for making screeching or screaming noises.
This is also a great opportunity to get creative with lesser utilized instruments or keyboard presets.
Add sound effects
Of course, the much simpler, yet still fear-inducing technique, is to simply add sound effects to your song. Creaking doors, footsteps, animal noises, and stormy weather are some of the more common scary effects.
These days vast libraries containing just about every sound you will ever need are just a few clicks away on the internet. But if you want to add your own unique touch you can always go out and record the sounds you need yourself. Equip yourself with a high-quality mic and find a particularly creaky door, go somewhere really windy, or record sounds from a forest.
Whether from a sound library or recorded yourself, processing your effects when mixing your track can really bring them to life. Use panning to make it sound like footsteps are getting closer, make it feel as if thunder is rolling across the sky, or create the illusion that a knock on the door has come from behind the listener. You can also add reverb to certain effects to create an echoey sound and give the feeling of a dark, empty room.
When creating music for a horror soundtrack building tension is perhaps the crucial factor. All good soundtracks create a foreboding atmosphere that gives you the feeling that something bad is about to happen. With a great soundtrack, even mundane activities the characters are doing can seem to create a feeling of dread.
Certain techniques can be used to build tension. Diminished chords are a great way to indicate that something is coming, although thanks to their use in cartoons and silent movies, they can also have comical connotations, so use them wisely.
Creating contrasting parts in your piece is a great way to build up an atmosphere of a track. Intersperse loud passages with quieter ones where there is very little going on apart from atmospheric noise. Silent parts could also be broken up with sudden screams or bangs.
A common trope of horror is to have the music build up as if something bad is going to happen. Then as it reaches the peak, suddenly it will go quiet and seem as if everything is fine. Then when the audience least expects it you can add a loud shriek or crash.
As with everything in music, there are no exact rules for what makes a song scary. So experiment, get creative and play it by ear!
Has this article made you want to create some scary music? Whether you're creating the soundtrack to a horror film or want to add some spooky strings to your song, Musiversal has the perfect orchestra for you!