What Makes Music Creepy: More Music Theory for Filmmakers

Do you ever find yourself having an emotional reaction to a movie and you're not quite sure why? If you're making movies, you need to spend time being intentional with the music you select. It's too powerful a tool to leave in the drawer.

A few weeks ago I wrote a quick article about Rick Beato's essay on the Lydian Mode. Briefly, Beato spent time talking about how the Lydian Mode is used in films to create a heavenly, or hopeful feeling. On the flip side, Beato recently published an essay about how music can create an ominous, or creepy mood.

If you're looking to create a darker feeling, to go for a frightened reaction, you should think about Beato's list of how to use music to do this:

  • low / deep sounds,
  • slow transitions,
  • screeching,
  • sudden sounds,
  • tremolo,
  • fast glissandos,
  • chromatic melodies,
  • punctuated chords,
  • minor / major and suspended / augmented chords,
  • pulsating rhythms, and
  • dissonant intervals / time signatures.

I love how Beato can take such complicated ideas like using minor / major chords and make them understandable to an interested, but uneducated, viewer by showing examples to go with the composition. After watching / listening to the Silence of the Lambs example, I almost understand augmented chords. At minimum, I could talk with a musician to explain what I needed if I wanted something dark for a soundtrack.

Those of you film composers who want a to have a pallette from which to draw from, things that sound creepy, these types of devices will create that creepy, horror, suspenseful sound.

I'd note that there should have been a trigger warning. I can't hear Tubular Bells without descending into a panic. I used to check the T.V. guide when I was home alone to make sure I didn't accidentally stumble across The Exorcist and it's haunting soundtrack. Thanks to Beato though, at least now I know that the music was so haunting because of its odd time signature. I still won't be sleeping tonight... thanks Rick.

Would you add anything to Beato's list?

Lead image from Nosferatu, Public Domain. It's not lost on me that Nosferatu is a silent film.

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6 Comments

Sean Shimmel's picture

Intriguingly detailed... I learned

Patrick Rosenbalm's picture

Rick Beato is a class act you can learn a lot from. As a musician I highly respect and admire him. He's No click bait clown following a trend. He's the real deal with solid facts.

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

I completely agree. It’s a crash course in music theory. As a lover, but uneducated listener, he makes things so clear and straightforward.

I've been listening to SomaFm/droneZone since 2004, Maybe you should give ambient Drone a try.

Alison Pristley's picture

Interesting thing to read, thank you!