Extremes of high, low notes and unusual harmonies result in scary music, musician says

Thursday, October 26, 2006

The screeching violins on the "Psycho" soundtrack, the booming horns in Mussorgsky's "A Night on Bald Mountain," and the tinkling ivories of the opening theme of "The Exocist" can send chills up many people's spines. A professor at the University of North Texas College of Music explains how certain music is designed to provide scares.

"Spooky suggests ghosts; and its cognate, ‘eerie,' suggests things being out of proportion, against expectation, outside of the normal bounds of experience. Imagine hearing a voice - or before radios, hearing music - when there's no one there," says Dr. Andrew May, director of the Center for Experimental Music and Intermedia at UNT.

The organ music from "Phantom of the Opera" proves to be a classic example, he says.

"The image of Lon Chaney at the organ in the film adaptation of Gaston Leroux's novel is a reminder that the organ itself is the eeriest of traditional instruments. A lone performer sits at a keyboard, while sounds come from all around the space; we hear a colossal sound, magically disembodied and magnified from the human who controls it," he says.

Silent films helped create our present-day expectations of spooky music, May says. Musicians would use sheet music, catalogued by mood or situation, to create a musical setting for the film. "Some pieces became stock items for romantic, adventurous or horrific scenes, and these may have had a role in defining our repertoire of spooky music," he says.

What is it about the composition of the music that makes it so spooky? May lists several things: "Extremes of high and low register or both; dissonant or unusual harmonies, particularly those that slide chromatically between keys, or away from any key; strange timbres; and extreme, shocking contrasts of dynamic - for example, a quiet, tense harmony suddenly broken by an explosion of furious, dramatic music," he says.

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