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Head and Heart: The Science and Fear of Movie Scores

By Emily Mullen

Picture this: you’re sitting in a movie theater watching Spielberg’s Jaws. The shark comes on the screen ready to attack but…there’s no music. Or imagine watching Hitchcock’s Psycho but there’s just silence while the killer strikes instead of the incredible score written by Herrmann. While these examples may seem absurd, think back to the horror movies you’ve watched and the scores written for them. The way the notes on the violin creep higher and higher, producing goosebumps on the skin, or the way the dynamics jump to fortissimo after being pianissimo, making the audience jump. To me, this intersection between the science of fear and the art of film scoring is the perfect match between STEAM and art.

What is it that makes these scores so creepy and why do humans react so viscerally? This link between music and fear has been researched by many neuroscientists. According to TIME and CBS News, these scores work to mimic sounds that trigger our fight and flight responses and activate the areas of the brain that want to protect us. When chords clash and arise out of nowhere, it mimics a scream which makes our brains go, “oh no, danger!” and triggers the adrenaline rush. Composers also work to mirror sounds like leaves rustling or faint footsteps in order to create that feeling of being preyed on.

The part of our brains wired for fear is known as the amygdala. It works to figure out whether or not the body needs to be afraid of its surroundings or not. There was a study done in Oxford comparing reactions to scary music in patients with amygdalas and patients without. It was found those who no longer had their amygdalas had a harder time differentiating between scary music and non-scary music while those with amygdalas had little trouble. While this is the biological factor for why humans react the way we do to horror music, composers still have to write the music in specific ways to trigger this reaction. Using different things like tempo, weird instruments, rhythm, and toying with the audience’s expectations are all used to make these scores as iconic as they are.

This idea of creating bone-chilling music is nothing new, in fact, it’s been around for centuries! While the most iconic pieces of horror musical literature may have come from the 20th century, music being used for inducing fear dates back to the composition of Dies Irae which translates to the day of wrath. Even today, this piece conveys a sense of impending doom and has been used in several horror movies including Friday the 13th and The Shining. Composers like Mozart and Stravinsky helped popularize this work and built off of the “doom feeling” of the original poem. Saint Saens’s Danse Macabre also comes to mind. From its haunting melodies to the instrumental effect of skeletons hurrying back to their graves, the piece shows Saens’s mastery of storytelling through music.

I have been lucky enough to study both the Herrmann Psycho Suite and Saens’s Danse Macabre and have gotten to experience firsthand what goes into taking the written notes off the page to make the audience feel the suspense and fear intended. In my ensembles, we focused lots on the dynamics and explored harsher, less melodic types of playing. Most of the time the music we perform is flowy and calming so I really enjoyed getting to push myself out of my comfort zone with these pieces.

Learning about the endless possibilities of the way music can be utilized inspires me to pursue my degree in music education. Growing up, I felt like I had to be in the classical music box and I could never play anything but classical. Getting to explore pieces like the ones mentioned in this essay has really challenged me and inspired me to grow and learn more as well as push the boundaries of what I “should” do. I want to pursue music education because I want to be able to help students see that there’s no “right” or “wrong” way to make, write, or perform music. By allowing more freedom and branching out from the traditional path, we’ve gotten some of the most iconic pieces of musical literature ever created! I wish to help inspire my students to make music in the “wrong” ways and challenge what we as musicians accept as being correct.

Music has the incredible power to bring people together, but it also has the power to affect the way we feel and perceive things. Horror movies would be so much less terrifying if they didn’t have the musical scores to accompany the action. Composers work to use our own biology against us in order to up the creepy factor of these movies and to me, that’s the most perfect combination of STEM and art.

Emily Mullen is a senior in the Early College Program here at CVCC. She loves all things music and plans to pursue Music Education this fall. In her free time, she enjoys volunteering, painting, reading, and spending time with loved ones.

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