Evoking fear using your compositions isn’t something that is usually addressed in music theory. Although dissonance, ambiguity, atonality and chromatic tones are used in many genres of music, they’re usually taught with the aim of establishing some transient uneasiness in a composition. When you’re trying to write scary music, you need a lasting tension that leaves your listeners on-edge, waiting for a resolution that never arrives or is twisted almost beyond recognition. There are many elements of music theory which are vital to creating scary music, but it’s possible to achieve good results with some creative experimentation too.
- Skill level:
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Things you need
- Recording software
- Pre-recorded sound effects (optional)
Choose your instruments carefully. Use a keyboard if possible, because these usually feature numerous sounds you can use in your composition. You don’t have to stick to low, sonorous horror tones, because things like the high notes on a piano (or a “toy piano” sound) or a stringed instrument can also create creepy effects. You can even improvise instruments from things you have around the house if you’re looking for something more unusual. Horror staples like symphonic tones or a theremin can usually be incorporated effectively too.
Use dissonant intervals to create uncomfortable melodies. If you’re playing in any key, an interval (the space between two notes) of a fifth (from C to G in C major) sounds very consonant, or pleasant to the ear. Incorporating dissonant intervals – such as the flat ninth (from C to C# in C major), the flat fifth (from C to F#) and the major seventh (C to B) – into your melodies and chords produces an unpleasant sound.
Play dissonant chords in your progressions to further establish the scary sound. Classic horror movies such as Nosferatu focus on the diminished seventh chord (Bdim in the key of C major) to create an unpleasant sound. You can also use flat ninth chords (preferably minor flat ninths) or minor/major seventh chords (these include the minor third but the major seventh interval) to create an uneasy sound. Alternatively, play any chords with clusters of notes which are close together or add extra note into minor chords you know.
Incorporate atonality and floating tonality to create more of a jarring sound. Atonal music has no central key, and is a complex field of study within music theory. Avoid the main note of the key you’re playing in or don’t define a key to create an atonal sound. Move a chord up or down by set intervals (down is particularly horror-friendly) to use floating tonality – for example, move a G min/maj7 down to F# min/maj7, F min/maj7, E min/maj7 and so on for an interesting horror sound.
Break any musical rules if it works for the piece you’re composing. Don’t worry if a particular note doesn’t technically fit in with the key or if a chord isn’t usually used in a certain context, just do it if it works. Breaking ordinary musical rules will create uncomfortable sounds, so don’t be afraid to be creative.
Record your composition using a digital audio recorder and a microphone. If you’re looking for additional sound effects, use a free sound effect library like Free SFX, Sound Bible or Audio Network (see Resources) to find something you can incorporate.
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