Film Composers: 5 Tips For Writing Horror Music
Whether it's the infamous shower scene from Psycho, or the two-note terror of John Williams’ Jaws, the Horror genre has produced some of the most iconic music ever put to film.
Horror movies are distinctive in that the focus is placed on creating a sense of fear within the audience. The director will deploy all of the creative tools at their disposal (lighting, costume, makeup, special effects, sound etc.) to maximise this effect.
The efficiency that music and sound have for communicating emotions makes them particularly effective tools for conveying fear, and you will often see a greater emphasis placed on music and sound design in Horror films than you would in other genres such as comedy, drama etc. This makes horror an excellent genre to study if you are interested in the relationship between sound and the moving image, and developing your craft as a film/game composer.
Here are 5 tips for you to dial up the fear factor and compose better Horror music.
Use silence to your advantage Alfred Hitchcock – “There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it” The Horror genre relies heavily on moments of quiet to build suspense, so resist the urge to throw music over every scene. It is often what is unseen that truly frightens us. By holding back and being restrained with your score your music will have more payoff when the big scare moments finally do arrive. Jump scares are another classic device used in Horror films, so avoid using any music before hand to maximise their impact.
To make the audience feel uncomfortable film composers must embrace the more dissonant end of the musical spectrum. This means use of dissonant intervals such as major 2nd, minor 7th, major 7thand the tri-tone, which is the interval in between perfect 4thand perfect 5th. Chromatic scales and tone clusters are also very characteristic of the classic Horror sound.
Dissonance doesn't only relate to the notes we pick, but in our instrument choices as well. The use of harsh textures and timbres in your instrumentation can be just as effective tools for instilling fear into the audience.
Check out this amazing example below
A common feature of horror film music is the use of sound design and unconventional instruments to make the music creepier.
Sure a piano on its own can sound scary enough, but how about combining it with other elements, or using audio effects to shape the sound into something much more evil.
There are no golden rules here so get creative; try running razor blades up and down a guitar string, or blending a layer of whispers with an instrument line. The possibilities are only as limited as your imagination. Some sound design ideas to include in your next Horror soundtrack:
- Whispered speech with reversed reverb
- Toy instruments processed through heavy fx
- Use of “prepared” instruments such as piano, bass etc.
- Use of extreme dynamics
- Experimental recording techniques, contact microphones, Em coil pickups
Sounds that are not necessarily scary on their own can also be used out of context to produce a very unsettling effect, as shown by the use of a music box in the piece from the ring below.
Focus on atmosphere
In Horror music, individual notes and themes tend to be less important, and more focus is placed on the feeling the music creates created as a whole. Tension is developed through the use of long buildups, pulsating low notes and evolving textures, with melodic ideas being use more sparingly.
You want to keep the audience feeling unnerved and not quite sure of what’s around the corner.
Don’t play it safe
Its hard to imagine a genre of film music that allows the composer more creative freedom than horror. You really do have free reign to take things in any direction you want, so resist the urge to play it safe.
Often it's the subtle things that make a score stand out so don't be afraid to throw in some strange elements in your composition. Whether it is the use harsh sounds, off kilter rhythms or extreme dynamics, writing for Horror will challenge you to embrace the darker side of things, and engage some creative muscles you might not have used in while.
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