Horror in Music - when music sets out to be scary

Human Skull on leather-bound books People in general and creative artists in particular have always had a fascination with the macabre. In the art world we have artists like Hieronymus Bosch and Salvador Dali, while in literature there are the disturbing short stories of Edgar Allan Poe, and novels by Mary Shelley (Frankenstein), Robert Louis Stevenson (Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde) and Bram Stoker (Dracula). Composers have also looked to some dark subject matter as the inspiration for their compositions, and this article looks at some of those examples of horror in music and the special techniques composers have used to make their compositions genuinely scary. So that you can hear as you read we will include examples of the music we discuss from youtube, and in case it's not obvious by now we're talking about Fictional Horror rather than real horrors.

Horror in Classical Music

Witch on Broomstick An early example of music with a dark subject matter is the "Dies Irae" or "Wrath of God" - here is a sung version on youtube (and at the bottom of this page we have listed the sheet music for this on mfiles). As a gregorian chant which is sung without accompaniment this doesn't sound particularly scary, but played loud by a band of horns, trombones and tubas it creates a very different effect. This is exactly what some later composers would do when they included parts of the Dies Irae in their darkest compositions. Here is the 5th movement of Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique (subtitled "Dreams of a Witches' Sabbath") which starts in dark suspense mode with sliding woodwind at 0:40. The witches dance starts at 1:40 with a shrill high-pitched Eb clarinet joining at 1:50. Tubular bells toll from 3:00 to herald the Dies Irae which starts immediately afterwards at 3:20. Berlioz brings in another special effect at 8:22 when the violins and violas play "col legno" meaning with the wooden side of their bow making an dry eerie sound.

Devil Another composer who created music for witches is Modest Mussorgsky with his "A Night on Bare Mountain". This was beautifully illustrated in Disney's Fantasia with ghosts, skeletons, witches and a huge demon. The music for was adatped for the Fantasia version, and the usual version heard in concert has Mussorgsky's music orchestrated by Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov (e.g. this version with dancers). It is a good workout for the orchestra and uses fairly standard orchestral techniques though strings again play "col legno" at one point and harmonics. The music gets increasingly frenzied until a Bell tolls at 7:35 to signify the break of dawn, when all goulish creatures must return to the ground.

Death Another famous example from classical music is the "Dance Macabre" whose story is based on a poem describing "Death" coming to visit once a year on Halloween. This work is for Violin and Orchestra, since the violin has long been associated with "Death" and "The Devil". In this case the solo violin sounds particularly demonic because it uses an unusual tuning system with the highest string tuned to Eb rather than to E. For those who are technically minded, this allows the violin to play a dischordant interval called a tritone (also called the "devil's chord") using harsh open strings. In this verion of the Dance Macabre you first hear the open string tritone at 0:19. To underline the subject matter Saint-Saens includes a version of the Dies Irae at 2:29. This music is probably most familiar to UK TV viewers as the theme to the programme "Jonathan Creek" starring Alan Davies.

Another famous piece dealing with death is Franz Liszt's "Totentanz" for piano and orchestra. Right from the very beginning this piece is demonic in the extreme and is a set of variations based on the "Dies Irae" and you can hear the theme in various forms throughout the piece. Liszt seems to have had a fascination with death, and he created a number of versions of his "Totentanz". Here is the most common version for Piano and Orchestra (and part 2) though we include a link to a version for piano solo later in this article.

More Horrific Classical Music

While not all composers have composed pieces based totally on a horror theme, many have created music which has dark moments, and they have used a range of orchestral techniques to help define the moment.

Girl Dancing Stravinsky's ballet "The Rite of Spring" is based on the idea of pagan rituals, and is split into two main sections called "The Adoration of the Earth" and "The Exalted Sacrifice". The concept of the second half is that a young girl is chosen from the tribe as a sacrifice to their gods and essentially the girl dances herself to death. Stravinsky took inspiration from the pagan past of Russia and Lithuania and his music in this work is very earthy and primitive sounding, yet based on very modern techniques which revolutionised classical music not to mention the previously genteel world of classical ballet. The ballet was considered scandalous when it was first released, but after a few years it was more widely redarded as being a powerful turning point in music. Excerpts from The Rite of Spring were also used in Disney's Fantasia but here is the final Sacrificial Dance which reaches a powerful climax when the chosen one dies.

A more abstract example is Mahler's 6th Symphony, sometimes called his "Tragic" symphony because of the final movement. Here Mahler's music seems to struggle for a heroic conclusion but despite some hopeful moments it fails. Although Mahler revised the Symphony several times, the version most frequently played in concert has 3 hammer blows in this movement. Mahler thought of these as blows of fate, and it's the 3rd and final blow (at 2:02 in part 4 of the 4th movement) which heralds the dark ending where fate has dealt the final blow. You will hear the first 2 hammer blows if you start at Part 1 of the 4th movement. Shostakovich also has some dark moments in his symphonies, one example is the 2nd movement from his 10th Symphony which is a violent scherzo. Holst's famous suite "The Planets" has each movement describing the mythical or astrological character of a planet, and he starts with Mars described as the "Bringer of War". The music is militaristic with a march theme under-pinned by an incessant rhythmic beat, unusual because that beat has 5 beats in the bar. Here is Holst's Mars from The Planets.

Face on Hands Some 20th century composers have created some extremely creepy music, though a number of their more horrific works commemorate the very real horrors that have afflicted our planet these past 100 years. We will therefore avoid these works, but as an example will mention the work of Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki. Penderecki has a reputation for creating some truly creepy music such as his "Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima". Many of his works have been used on horror film soundtracks because of their extreme sonic pallet, such as "The Exorcist" and "The Shining", which used music from no fewer than seven of his pieces. One piece of music used in the Shining is The Dream of Jacob.

Halloween and Horror at Virtual Sheet Music

Dark Choral Music

Stained Glass Window We have concentrated so far on orchestral music, but voices can be great at heightening the intensity of music. Because voices are a natural means of expression in humans, they can convey lots of emotion to the listener. A large group of voices singing together in chorus can be extremely powerful so it is no surprise that some composers have taken this route with their darkest music. Curiously in these situations it can be more effective when the lyrics are not in a modern language like English. It could be that the music seems more ominous when you don't understand the lyrics, or it could be that it helps to transport the listeners imagination away from their normal lives. The Welsh composer Karl Jenkins in his Requiem went back to the latin lyrics of the Dies Irae to create his own pounding version of this poem. Here is this movement of his Requiem being performed in concert at the Millennium Centre in Cardiff - Karl Jenkins: Dies Irae.

Opera Singer in Valkyrie costume The Valkyrie are god-like woman from Norse mythology, and one of their functions is to decide who lives and who dies in battle. They are often depicted as riding through the air to the battlefield to make their choice, and then riding to take those warriors chosen to die to "Valhalla" the afterlife. This is the mythology that Richard Wagner tapped into for his opera "Die Walküre" (The Valkyries) which is one of the four operas in his Ring Cycle. The opening of Act III is the famous Ride of the Valkyries which uses a distinct galloping rhythm. Although it was written as a choral piece, it is often played as a stand-alone orchestral piece and is very familiar from its frequent use in film and television. One notable use of the music is when the music is played on speakers as helicopters attack a village in this frankly horrific scene from Apcalypse Now.

Dark Face Similarly the poems called "Carmina Burana" date from the 11th and 12th centuries and are a mixture of Latin and Old German texts. Latin was the main language used by the church and by educated people at the time, though the poems themselves are anything but religious in their outlook. Some of them poke fun at religion, many are about love and sex, while others are effectively drinking songs. The composer Carl Orff took a selection of these songs to create his cantata "Carmina Burana" whose opening and closing movement is called "O Fortuna". Fortuna is the Roman Godess of Fate, and the poem is a complaint about someone receiving a raw deal at the whim of fate. Orff's music treats this in an intense way with sudden changes from quiet to loud music, and is very well-known from its use in adverts, television shows and the move "Excalibur". Here is a spectacular version of O Fortuna conducted by André Rieu.

The Fires of Hell In addition to his "Symphonie Fantastique" Berlioz also used a dark story for his dramatic oratorio "The Damnation of Faust". The character of Faust meets a man called Mephistopheles who is actually the Devil in disguise. Mephistopheles gains the trust of Faust but eventually tricks him into giving him his soul, and then Faust realises what he has done when he is taken to Hell. An an opera the story has a reputation for being difficult to stage but Terry Gilliam, whose fantastic visual sense has propelled his career as a film director after the Python team broke up, has directed it for English National Opera to excellent reviews in 2011. Here is an extract from a powerful concert hall performance taken from the 4th and Final Part called The Ride to the Abyss and Pandemonium.

Horror Music for Solo Instruments

The Grim Reaper We have seen how composers have often used special effects within an orchestral setting or large choirs to make their music sound extreme and emphasise the horror. With a solo instrument it must be much harder to create a similar impact, since there's less scope for contrast and using a wide range of sounds. Nevertheless some composers have managed to create some truly demonic music for just a single musical instrument. We have already mentioned above Liszt's Totentanz for piano and orchestra but the composer also created a version for piano solo. Here is the Ukrainian-born pianist Valentina Lisitsa playing the piano solo version and demonstrating a extraordinary technique and stamina.

Gothic House Of course a piano is a large percussive instrument capable of playing quite loudly. You would think that a classical guitar (a relatively quiet instrument) would be at a distict disadvantage when it came to playing horrific music, but the Russian-born guitarist Nikita Koshkin has done just that with a piece called the "Usher Waltz" inspired by the Edgar Allan Poe story called "The Fall of the House of Usher". Here is the guitarist John Williams playing Koshkin's Usher Waltz. Just like the special effects used in orchestral music this guitar version uses a number of unusual guitar effects which you can see Williams performing in close up.

Organ Console One musical instrument often associated with Horror is of course the organ. Film versions of "The Phantom of the Opera" often depict the Phantom playing the organ, and Andrew Lloyd-Webber uses an organ theme in his musical version of the tale. When it comes to music for solo organ, many people will think of Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor whose dramatic opening has certainly been used in a few horror films. We particular like this version played by Karl Richter (note that the organ is not in concert pitch and the organist needs a helper to pull and push stops at certain points in the music). Although it is not a solo work, Poulenc's Organ concerto similarly has a big dramatic opening and some very creepy music.

Music for Horror Films

Sound is very important in all films, but in Horror films it becomes a huge part of the overall package. When you see someone walking down a street at night, the choice of music can change this from a gentle relaxing stroll to an ominous "something's going to happen any minute" feeling. In fact because of the extreme nature of the plots in Horror films, it can give composers the freedom to experiment with unusual styles and techniques which couldn't possibly be used on mainstream films. For that reason horror films have in a sense been at the forefront of musical expression for general audiences, and composers have used modern avant-garde methods of scoring and electronic effects to a greater extent than in other film genres. Existing electronic tracks might also be used such as Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells on The Exorcist.

Count Dracula In the UK the Hammer Film Studios created many horror films from the 1950s through to the 1970s. A number of composers were involved in these films, but it was James Bernard who created the signature sound for many of their key movie concepts especially the Dracula and Frankenstein movies. The music for these films also seemed to transport the viewer into a different world, a world which was uneasy and foreboding. Together with the Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing as their main stars and the music of James Bernard, these films seemed to inhabit a different realm where strange things happen. For the Dracula character Bernard used a sequence of strong dark chords in an unsettled tonality. Here is the Dracula Main Theme and Bernard's Vampire Rhapsody for piano and orchestra which celebrates his music for the Hammer Studio. Also taking the orchestral approach is Christopher Young in his music for Hellraiser, which hints at unspeakable horrors yet is subtly alluring and clearly articulates the temptations of this dark world.

Pumpkin Face for Halloween Other composers have opted for a much more minimalist approach. Much of John Williams' music for Jaws is bright and energetic as people enjoy themseleves in the water, yet his Jaws Theme itself springs from a short motto of only two notes. Those two notes are recognised by millions across the world and now symbolise a lurking underwater menace. A similar minimalist theme was used by John Carpenter on his film Halloween. The impact is similar because you instantly know that the bad guy is getting closer. In this case Carpenter used a repetitive piano pattern with 5 beats in the bar and some dark brass notes. Both these themes have been so successful that they have been used in many sequels and other films.

Housefly Howard Shore has also scored a fair number of horror films, mostly for David Cronenberg. His music for "The Fly" has now been adapted into an opera, though the original orchestral music for The Fly, while it certainly had moments of suspense and Horror, also emphasised the human emotional side of the story. Bernard Herrmann's film music was often in the thriller category, but he made significant contributions to the horror genre with his screeching strings in Psycho (in this suite the music for the famous "shower scene" starts at 4:32), the electronically enhanced bird noises for The Birds (put together by Oskar Sala and Remi Gassmann, though Herrmann acted as consultant), the and ominous 4-note motif for Cape Fear (re-used by Elmer Bernstein in the remake).

A different take on Vampire stories came from the books and movie "Interview with the Vampire" whose music by Elliot Goldenthal was eerie and otherworldly conveying the feeling of them having lived for centuries e.g. the track Libera Me with boys choir.

Horror Music on Television

Nightmare Whatever happens on the big screen, the small screen is rarely far behind. Some shows have specialised in strange and macabre worlds such as "The Twilight Zone" (there are various versions of the Twilight Zone theme but they all have the spooky "doo-doo-doo-doo" which people remember and The Outer Limits which also uses 4 notes. Alfred Hitchcock himself introduced lots of mystery and horror stories on the various Hitchcock TV shows, his theme music being Gonoud's Funeral March of a Marionette which kind of fitted his blend of horror with a touch of humour. Mixing horror with humour has been a regular theme on television, with "The Simpsons" for example having its own series of Halloween episodes where Alf Clausen frequently spoofs the music of the Horror genre. Here is a spooky theremin-like version of The Simpsons theme music, and Danny Elfman again composed a suitably gothic theme for the show Tales from the Crypt.

Glamorous Witch Other TV shows mixed horror and humour from the start. The was The Addams Family with its finger-snapping theme by Vic Mizzy and The Munsters. Both themes were later adapted, The Addams Family for two movie versions based on the characters and The Munsters for a 1980s relaunch of the show. Although The Addams Family moved from small to big screen, Beetlejuice moved in the opposite direction with an animated spin-off from Tim Burton's anarchic movie, again retaining a version of the original Danny Elfman theme. Other comedy shows were based on a gothic premise such as "Bewitched" (with its theme tune emphasising the magical rather than the gothic) which also move to the big screen. Scooby-Doo also faced lots of Ghosts - his theme song was jolly, but there were a few scares in the indicental music and sound effects. More grown-up was the programme X-Files with its theme by Mark Snow full of spooky mystery.

Ghost A number of TV shows have pioneered a more modern approach to horror themes targetting a teenage or young adult audience. The staple characters of horror fiction are now seen as tragic, sympathetic figures rather than as frightening images. First there was "Buffy the Vampire Slayer", then "Twilight" and similar shows explored the theme of belonging or being different. The music for these shows tended to take its inspiration from contemporary films with exploring horror for a teen audience, though the Buffy Musical Episode seems to have established itself with a major cult following. The musical episode "Once More With Feeling" should certainly be applauded for its daring and here is a selection of its songs including the ensemble piece "Walk through the Fire" and here is Spike's Song Let Me Rest in Peace, and perhaps it suggested Anthony Head for the repo musical mentioned below.

Horror Musicals

Pumpkin Head Some Horror musicals have gone for the tongue-in-cheek light-hearted approach to Horror. Despite their gruesome subject matter these musicals are simply having fun with the material. In the world of animation and stop motion there are the Tim Burton musicals "A Nightmare Before Christmas" (This is Halloween) and "Corpse Bride" (Remains of the day (both with songs by Danny Elfman), and live-action musicals include "Little Shop of Horrors" (Feed Me!) and "Rocky Horror Picture Show" (Time Warp) which mixes all sorts of horror and sci-fi references with sexual innuendo. Also taking a humorous approach is the musical version of "Evil Dead" (the song What the F... was that?).

Knife Shadows However other writers of musicals (composers and lyricists) have taken a darker approach. Stephen Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd" has taken this darker route and it is very evident in the musical language. Here is Stephen Sondheim's dramatic opening overture for Tim Burton's movie version of the musical. You will notice that it uses an organ and quotes from the Dies Irae. Andrew Lloyd Webber's "The Phantom of the Opera" focusses on the human relationships in the story, but it also uses a gothic sounding organ playing the main theme. (Here is Michael Crawford and Sarah Brightman version.) One of the darkest and most gruesome of musicals (and well worth watching if you get a chance!) is the film musical "Repo! The Genetic Opera". The cast includes Sarah Brightman, Anthony Head and Paris Hilton. Although there is an element of larger-than-life comedy, there is also lots of blood and gore. Here is the song Night Surgeon with its gory conclusion.

Other Horror musicals have included "Jekyll & Hyde" with music by Frank Wildhorn and lyrics by Leslie Bricusse - here's the song "This is The Moment" sung by David Hasselhoff as Jekyll, and the musical "Wicked" with music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz - here's the song Defying Gravity. Other musical shows which have come about due to the prior success of horror movies is the musical version of "The Witches of Eastwick" (music by Dana P. Rowe) and there's even an operatic version of Cronenberg's "The Fly"!

Horror in Popular Music

Gothic Lead Singer Popular Music has also borrowed ideas from horror fiction, though similarly this has often been in a theatrical or even camp manner with a degree of humour. Some artists in particular have created entertainment with shock value, and often with extravagant makeup and costumes for emphasis. Gothic Music as we know it today has its roots in Punk, but has branched off in various directions in several countries. Some gothic style music leans towards the rock/metal side of the spectrum, while other styles are dominated by synth drones and low almost mumbling voices. Here are some of the artists credited with leading and influencing this range of music: Alice Cooper sings Poison, Bauhaus' video for Bela Lugosi's Dead, Siouxsie and the Banshees perform Passenger, Joy Division perform She's Lost Control and The Damned perform Love Song live. One phenomenon sometimes associated with such music is the Goth Culture, which outwardly has a focus on dark clothing and makeup, taking some of its inspiration from horror themes.

Gothic Rock Band An early Rock Song with gothic elements is Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody. It's certainly very dark mentioning murder and fate, and with Faustian references to Beelzebub and the Devil. The music is a complex mix of styles which can't be pidgeonholed. The singer Meatloaf has also had enormous success with his gothic music. Although he appeared in "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" it was his album Bat Out of Hell appearing soon afterwards that established his reputation, complete with gothic imagery in the title track's lyrics and on the album cover. After some personal and relationship issues, the artist made a strong comeback with a pair of "Bat Out of Hell" sequel albums. Among the many other popular artists looking to gothic theme's for their songs are the duo Shakespears Sister with their song Stay. Of course the definitive Horror Song in popular music must be Michael Jackson's Thriller with its superb video and Vincent Price adding a touch of Hammer authenticity.

Horror in Music - Conclusion and Reference Section

Horror Figure It should be clear by now that just as literature and art has regularly explored the macabre, the realm of music has similarly been influenced by horror themes - witches and devils, vampires and werewolves, haunted houses and mad doctors, mummys and ghosts, death and graveyards. Still it feels as though we have barely scratched the surface of the topic of "Horror in Music". No doubt we will come across many other examples, and if we find some good examples then we will add them to this article in an appropriate place. For now, remember that this is all just fantasy and entertainment, and we wish you pleasant dreams. We will begin a short reference section with some videos which demonstrate some of the orchestral sounds and techniques that have been used by various composers:

Horror Music Composers

Witch When it comes to Classical Music, very few classical composers can be labelled as horror composers. They may have dabbled in the genre from time to time, but rarely to the exclusion of other styles of music. Among the few classical composers who have visited the macabre on more than one occasion are Hector Berlioz, for his Symphonie Fantastique and his Faust Symphony and Modest Mussorgsky for his Night on Bare Mountain and some of his Pictures at an Exhibition. However, the situation is quite different in the world of film music. If a composer is successful with one horror film, they are asked to score more horror films. Thus many film composers seem to have specialised (at least in part) in the horror genre, and here are some examples where you can find out more about the composers on mfiles:

  • James Bernard - Quatermas, Hammer films: Dracula & Frankenstein, Hound of the Baskervilles,etc.
  • Howard Shore (mostly director David Cronenberg) - The Fly, Silence of the Lambs, Se7en, The Brood, She-Devil
  • Christopher Young - Hellraiser 1 & 2, The Fly II, Species, Urbas Legend, The Grudge 1 2 & 3, Drag me to Hell
  • John Carpenter director/composer (and Alan Howarth) - Halloween series, Eyes of Laura Mars, The Fog
  • Pino Donaggio - Carrie, Piranha, The Howling, The Black Cat, Crawlspace, Catacombs, Raising Cain, Trauma
  • Marco Beltrami - Scream 1 2 3 & 4, Mimic, The Faculty, My Soul to Take, The Omen (2006), The Thing (2011)
  • Marco Werba - Fearmakers, Colour from the Dark, Giallo, Braincell, Mr. Hush, Native
  • Simon Boswell (often for Dario Argento) - Phenomena, Demons 2, Delirium, Black Sunday, Incubus, Manhunt

A number of composers also deserve "honourable mentions" for their contribution to the horror genre:

  • Danny Elfman - Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, Corpse Bride, The Wolfman, Tales from the Crypt
  • Jerry Goldsmith - The Omen 1 2 and 3, Alien, Poltergeist, The Mephisto Waltz, The Swarm
  • Angelo Badalamenti - Cabin Fever, Twin Peaks, Evilenko, Dominion, Dark Water, The Wicker Man (2006)
  • Bernard Herrmann - Psycho, Cape Fear, The Birds, It's Alive
  • Franz Waxman - Bride of Frankenstein, The Devil-Doll, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Other composers mentioned in this article are listed below and more information about these composers can be found on their mfiles biography page:

Horror Sheet Music on mfiles

Here is the sheet music for some pieces associated with horror. These can be downloaded free for personal use, or you can also download midi and mp3 file versions:

And you can find more sheet music with a horror theme here:

Halloween and Horror at Virtual Sheet Music