To create a playlist that chills to the bone, our Trends Expert Shanon Cook sought help from two researchers who believe music can put us on edge by tapping into our animal instincts. Certain pieces grab our attention because they mimic the sounds of predators or their prey in distress, according to Daniel Blumstein, professor and chair for the UCLA Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, and Greg Bryant, associate professor for the UCLA Department of Communication Studies.
Those menacing DUH-dum, DUH-dum’s in the Jaws theme music that signal the approach of the great white? Turns out it’s not just Steven Spielberg’s visuals that scare us, it’s also the low frequency of the string instruments. In the wild large predators produce deeper sounds.
“Little things like babies,” says Blumstein, “just can’t sing bass. The bigger the animal the lower the frequency, and we are wired to be afraid of big things.”
Okay, we’re getting out of the water.
Sort of. Remember the music that goes with the horrifying shower scene in Psycho? Those stabbing, shrieking violins contain rapidly changing frequencies and amplitude fluctuations, characteristics of sounds that can be associated with extreme fear in the wild.
Blumstein first started studying fearful sounds when he heard baby marmots scream when caught. Animal screams, he asserts, occur when a voice is overblown – like when music through a speaker is pushed to the limit – resulting in nonlinear sounds that come across as distorted, frequency-shifting and grating. These nonlinearities are common in music that’s intended to spook us, particularly music composed for horror films.
Not convinced? Well, Blumstein and Bryant urge that when it comes to biological wiring, it’s possible to feel scared when hearing certain sounds without actually being aware of it. It’s nature’s way of getting you to pay attention.
We also turned to award-winning composer Jason Graves, whose spooky scores ratchet up the fear for players of the video game Dead Space and the latest installment of Tomb Raider. Graves (whose surname is not a moniker, just an eerie coincidence) says making scary music is all about that journey towards what’s lurking around the corner:
“It’s the fear of the unknown,” he says. “It’s the build-up to the Boo! A psychological build-up. And the more unknown that build-up can be, the better.”
Graves says composers also unsettle listeners by including clusters of aleatoric music, or music that isn’t defined by chords or structured melodies and therefore takes on an eerie, unpredictable quality. For an example, check out the 53 second mark of Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki’s Victims of Hiroshima. The tormenting piece was used by Stanley Kubric in The Shining and serves as a reference for Hollywood’s horror film scorers
Then there’s flipping the script altogether. To score the latest installment of Tomb Raider, Graves worked with sculptor Matt McConnell to create a 9-foot-tall sculpture (see above right) that made a variety of spooky, freaky sounds. Listen to the first two minutes of The Scavenger’s Den: what you’re hearing is Graves moving a cello bow along the sculpture’s metal spikes.
Prepare to be spooked by Spotify’s darkest playlist to date here!