You’ve got the pumpkin carved, the bowl of sweets ready for the trick or treaters and the apples ready to bob - have you got Thriller and Monster Mash ready to play? Have you ever wondered why some music gives you the creeps? There are some well-known musical conventions and a bit of science that will guarantee a spooky atmosphere – read on if you dare…

Fear in your Ears - the science behind your Halloween soundtrack
Fear in your Ears - the science behind your Halloween soundtrack

Haunting Voices

Low pitched voices and sounds add an air of terror – think of Marilyn Manson’s cover of Danny Elfman’s This is Halloween or Vincent Price’s narration on Thriller, but it’s the high-pitched ones that really provoke fear – and there’s some real science behind this. Evolutionary biologist Daniel Blumstein was studying marmots when he noticed that whenever they captured a baby one it would squeal – the rodent equivalent of a scream. This is known as non-linear sound, used by young animals to grab the attention of their parents, and Daniel set about working out how it upsets people. He conducted an experiment where subjects were asked to listen to a random mixture of music and rate it based on how they felt. The answers were as he predicted – tracks containing the non- linear elements created the highest level of emotional stimulation as well as the most negative feeling. That feeling of fear and unease created by these sounds is our evolutionary response to what our brains perceive as a scream for help. You can read more of Daniel and his colleagues research at The Royal Society.

Intimidating Interludes

Some intervals in music create an intimidating air. One, the tritone, was considered so upsetting it was named diabolus in musica (the devil in music) by mediaeval theorists and had to be avoided at all costs. Slayer fans will recognise that as the title of their eighth studio album, and this musical trick has not only been used by them but also Black Sabbath and a host of classical composers, most notably Saint-Saëns Danse Macabre.  

Alarming instruments

Without a doubt the pipe organ is top of the pops when it comes to scary sounds – used to great effect in countless spooky soundtracks ranging from Lloyd Webber’s ‘Phantom of the Opera’ to ‘Interview with the Vampire’ and ‘Sleepy Hollow’ its gothic tone is creepy and climatic. It’s not only the organ that gets a look in on this list – harpsichords create unease in the theme to the ‘Addams Family’ and traditionally the solo violin has been associated with the devil.

Creepy chanting and scary songs

The Latin plainchant from the Mass of the Dead – Dies Irie is standard choice for composers to scare and it’s found everywhere from Rachmaninov’s Isle of the Dead to the more up to date soundtracks of Sweeny Todd and Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Likewise choruses can provoke fear -probably the most well known is the use of Carmina Burana in The Omen but a host of Scandi-noir TV series have taken the idea and used similar as the title tracks. It’s not just Latin chants and classical music that can scare – the simple folk round Sumer is Icumen was used in the classic The Wicker Man to great effect, and Baloo my Boy in Ben Wheatley’s 2013 ‘A Field in England’ is as creepy as they come.

The scariest sound of all

OK – there’s no track to represent this but by far and away silence is the biggest fear provoker in the aural canon. Total quiet can be very frightening in itself – giving an expectation that something is about to happen – but with no indication that it will. Fans of Buffy will remember the episode where they deal with the death of her mum which didn’t have any music at all and was uncomfortable to watch.

Don’t worry though – Halloween music isn’t all doom and gloom and our curation team has created this spooktastic playlist to keep you amused whilst handing out the sweeties and treats on the 31st.

Now that you know how music and sound affect you do you think that your customers feel comfortable in your venue or store? If silence is scaring or your playlist is creating a terrifying mood then why not give Imagesound a buzz? We’d love to talk about what makes the perfect soundtrack for your brand or business.