Writing Horror Film Music

Disclaimer: Some links in this Horror film music article are for scary films so this post is not recommended

for young kids under the age of 16 or anyone that is scared from horror films

A fritghen kid

 

Music and sound are the best ways in horror films to built suspense and in hence the scary parts. That’s why you can see many horror film directors that have the same soundtrack composer again and again.

Many composers like to work with horror films because you can do a lot more in it. Horror film music are usually more aggressive and there is more room for experiments. In this article, we will discuss Horror film music. 

It’s true that the first horror films like Dracula or The Mummy from the early 30’s hardly used any music in the film itself, but the music is a tool every director needs today to create the right atmosphere.  In this article we’ll go through what important to take under consideration when developing music for your horror film along with some examples of the best horror soundtracks up to today.

What’s the purpose of music in horror films?

The main thing you need to think about when composing music is what is the purpose of the music in your film. Sometimes it might just be, to let us know that the killer is coming. Usually, for this job, the composer will use very minimalist music like in jaws or Friday the 13th In this case, the simplest the theme is – the better. Sometimes it can be just a repeating note that keeps returning again and again and gives us the creep like in Psycho.

Personally, I like what John Carpenter did in the movie Halloween, which he wrote by himself. This is a great example of how music can build tension from a very simple piano melody.

 

Another good example of “less is more” attitude, is the stabbing in the shower scene music of Psycho, which become kind of the godfather of many horror soundtracks. The Composer Bernard Herrmann created a very fundamental and primitive music to describe the atmosphere of this scene. It worth mentioning that Alfred Hitchcock himself didn’t want any music at all in the scene – talk about less is more.

“The horror in music comes from the silence”

John Carpenter

How to design the music for horror film?

 

  1. Use the Film’s theme – Think about what kind of feeling you want the audience to have when they watch the scene. It will help you a lot to understand the film’s premise first. For example, in the very recommended movie, Suspiria, that deals with witches, Dario Argento, the director, said he wants the audience to feel like the witches are always in the room, even if we don’t see them. That was acclaimed perfectly in the main music theme of the film that repeated it self in many scenes of the film

2. Use contradiction – The contradictions will “play” with the audience’s minds, but it can also be a great tool to create scarceness. You can see that kind of style in the main themes of movies like Rosemary’s Baby, Where the movie uses a very simple and innocent lullaby song to create a very creepy atmosphere. The song was scored by Krzysztof Komeda and sung by Mia Farrow and it combines high piano notes with a “la la la” whispering singing. The theme completes the movie premise that tells us that even if something looks innocent and harmless, it can be very evil and creepy.

Another good example is Nightmare in Elm Street, Where the composer uses a children’s game song to compose a very scary theme. The emotional contrast between something pure from our childhood and this nightmare we see in the movie is very powerful

What’s the best way to score for horror films?

Every composer has its own way of making music. You don’t have to be attached only to an orchestra. In the 80’s it was very popular to use electronic music. Some movies rather use guitars etc. It’s really up to you and the director.
When working on horror film music, you can’t just let it play in the background.It has to contribute to the image in the scene. You have to test it in front of an audience and see how does it affect them. What emotion does the music invoke in them? Play the music to an audience without showing them the film and ask them later how did the music make them feel. I hope this article helped you to understand more the world of music in the horror film. If you like me writing about the genre, let me know, as I enjoy writing it.

More horror Soundtrack you should know

The Thing

Another one from my favourite horror director, John Carpenter, scored by Ennio Morricone. The theme Is built from a combination of orchestra and synthesizer, percussion, discordant chords, funereal sounds and more. Carpenter gave Morricone complete freedom and only one guiding direction – “fewer notes”.

Jaws

We’ve talked about simplicity and minimalism in horror music for the film. Here is another good example of that. This soundtrack, written by John Williams, reminds us of Psycho in its simplicity. The minor chords and jagged violins help you to really feel how the shark is getting close to the victim. 

The Shining

This score, by Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind is leaning on pre-existing music from György Ligeti and Krzysztof Penderecki.  When you hear that music in the opening scene, you know you are in a horror film, even though what you see is only a family drive through a beautiful mountainscape probably to a vacation. 

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