What makes scary music scary?

Eva Amsen 🔬🎶
4 min readOct 28, 2017

The science behind the spookiest soundtracks

Image via Max Pixel

A scary movie would be far less scary without its soundtrack. Close your ears during the most tense scenes, and they become almost boring. Take this recut of the trailer for The Shining as a happy family movie (“Shining”). It’s funny partly because of the voice-over, but mainly because of the happy Peter Gabriel music at the end. It works the other way around as well, as demonstrated by a fan-made trailer of Frozen as a horror film.

Music makes scary movies scary — but what makes scary music scary?

Nonlinear noise

Daniel Blumstein is professor in the department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at UCLA. While studying marmots a few years ago, he noticed their distress calls were characterized by nonlinear noise patterns. He found this same pattern in other animals’ alarm calls, but also somewhere else: in the soundtracks of scary movies.

After analysing music from different movie genres, Blumstein discovered that scary movies often included high-pitched screams with a lot of noise. In this context, “noise” doesn’t mean “loud sounds”, but describes a disturbance in the sound — like radio noise. According to Blumstein, these noisy screams in scary movies have the same effect on us as animal distress calls: They evoke strong feelings, and we’re conditioned to find them disturbing.

The Devil’s interval

Not all scary music is characterised by high pitched shrieking. Sometimes the use of minor chords and dissonant sounds is enough to evoke a spooky atmosphere. In the Middle Ages, one interval even started to be referred to as “Devil’s interval”. It refers to the tritone, or augmented 4th. This is the interval between A and E flat, for example, or between D flat and G.

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Eva Amsen 🔬🎶

Writer, science communicator, musician. Find more of my writing at Forbes.com, Undark, Nature, Nautilus, The Scientist, Hakai and other places.