What makes scary music scary?

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With Halloween just around the corner, I started to wonder: what makes music scary? If you’re not a music guru you probably wouldn’t be able to pinpoint the technical terms, but you’d definitely know scary when you hear it! All the shrieking noises, unpleasant sounding chords and sudden high notes, they all combine to make us nervous. Having an exact combination of notes that mostly disrupt our ears, is the perfect recipe to create dissonance.

Most of this music is composed in a minor key and includes sudden changes in dynamics (loud and soft). Composers also use the tritone, two notes that are three whole steps apart (like F and B. This was known as diabolus (devil) music in the Middle Ages. Throughout history, certain combinations of notes, such as the triton have been avoided so as not to be associated with any kind of negative emotion.

The final product of a well composed scary piece of music is an atmosphere which is unfamiliar, a soundscape that disorients and confuses. Don’t be so scared out of your skin, remember it is only a manipulation of notes!

Written by

Sarah Cassar Dymond

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