A Little Night Music…

January 16, 2008 at 1:40 pm (Horror, Movies, Music)

As most of you probably know, I have something of a fascination with horror movies, literature, etc. I don’t like slasher movies, but I do love the macabre, the creepy and the weird. One of the things that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is how music relates to the story being told. What is it that makes a piece of music scary? Looking through my (admittedly limited) collection of classical music, for example, virtually all of the pieces named after evil spirits (and there are quite a few) are actually up-tempo, enjoyable pieces, and not particularly scary. This makes sense, inasmuch as the musicians at the time certainly weren’t trying to terrify their audience. Nonetheless, I’ve always felt a little disappointed by those pieces.

So, in the back of my mind, I’ve been slowly cataloging notes on scary music. Everyone knows, for example, that the minor key makes the music seem creepier (or sadder). So can deep-sounding instruments, like the double bass or the pipe organ. Sometimes, just one instrument, playing one refrain, over and over, can be pretty creepy, too: Just look at the theme from Halloween. But that’s about as far as I’ve gotten with it.

The other day on NPR, I heard an interview with Daniel Pollack that has fleshed out my creepy-music collection quite a bit. One of the pieces that Pollack played was Barber’s Piano Sonata, which (as far as I can tell, not being a scholar of musical history) belongs to the same school of minimalism and dissonance that Schoenberg worked in. Listening to it, I felt… disturbed. I doubt that was Barber’s and Ives’ intention, but the effect of the dissonance was that I felt quite uncomfortable. It’s the same effect that I noticed in Rescue Dawn, where much of the music had a very dissonant and screechy violin playing on top of the melody, that heightened the sense of insanity and confusion. And, when I’ve heard samples of Schoenberg’s work (also on NPR), I remember feeling the same way.

So, now that I have noticed this commonality, I think that I will have to do some more research, by getting a few CDs from this school of music and otherwise learning what I can about it. Not that I need any help being paranoid; but if I ever do get around to making my own horror film, like I sometimes fantasize about, knowing what music to use will be rather helpful.

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