Sounds can be among the scariest stimuli that we humans face. We are comforted by being able to see what has just frightened us. When we cannot see the source of our discomfort, the dread within us intensifies. Anyone who has been alone in an old house immediately knows what I’m talking about. The night time creaks, the windblown branch of a tree scraping against a window pain; these things unnerve us because we cannot see them. Given our tendency to be frightened above all by sound, it should come as no surprise that music at times can sound frightening. Though our rational minds know that there is no danger posed by a home sound system or a symphony orchestra on a stage before us, still certain sounds elicit fright reflexes in spite of what we might think our rational selves would tell us.
Composers sometimes take advantage of our skittishness, building scary sounds into music in order to give us a good musical scare. What are these devilish devices composers of concert and film music serve up to us? Let’s take three examples of scary classical music and see if we can discover what they are. First, listen to “A Night On Bare Mountain” by Mussorgsky. This is Mussorgsky’s original version, not the more often heard revision by Rimsky Korsakov.
A Night On Bare Mountain
This scary classical music has three of the things we humans are most afraid of: power other than our own, excesses, and unpredictability. This music lunges at us from the outset, and accosts us with largess. The timpani and low brass sound powerful amid a context of swirling, prowling strings and pounding, incessant, percussive repetition. The music immediately hammers away at us, catching us off guard and surprised by the ferociousness and ugliness of the sprawling creative ideas. Piccolos swipe away at us from their extreme and shrill upper perch. Then, a cymbal clash and all but the quietest and lowest sounds drop away, leaving us apprehensively awaiting where the music will deposit us next. After only a few moments of hopeful frolicking before darkness ambushes us again, we are accosted once more by sudden trumpet attacks. After a few unexpected harmonies, we are lost and surrounded in sonic darkness. Then beams of light come flashing through the flutes and scampering strings. Still unsettling in its uncertainty, the new found brightness, at least for now, entices us with hopefulness. Yet a storm begins to brew, and the woodwinds turn on us, now caught up in the returning stormy gloom; a bit of frolicking development with the ever returning hint of doubt. We are never far from hints of the ominous opening which leave us apprehensive and unwilling to find comfort in whatever peaceful moment we may find. The cellos again lurk beneath familiar melodies while the brass continue to stab at us, as if probing to discover our whereabouts. The melody struggles to cross over into major, and at the very last seems to succeed, but only to escape and not triumph.
Now let us consider another scary classical musical work, this one not necessarily part of the usual classical music canon but never the less symphonic and scary. The music immediately sets our innate physical defense system on alert. The abrupt, high, shrill blasts from the strings are well outside the pitch range of what we expect at the beginning of a musical work. The extreme high range of these pitch blows gets our attention, tricking our self-preservation mechanisms to prepare to defend our bodies. The adding of a dissonant interval heightens the affect, making the music not only threatening but also unpleasant which unleashes a feeling of sadness or despair. As in “Night On Bare Mountain,” the incessant repetition of this threatening unpleasantness builds tension and unsettledness throughout our bodies and minds. The repetitions last long enough to become irritating and to set us wondering just what sort of attack we are under. (Of course if we are watching the movie, we know; but we are talking about the music here, apart from the film images.) These attacks are eventually replaced with plodding basses, giving us a new image to interpret. The plodding is repetitive making its duration and destination uncertain, adding to the scariness. Soon repeated flourishes in the high strings are added, reminiscent of the swirling high strings near the beginning of “Night On Bald Mountain.” These two contradictory forces, the plodding basses and the swirling strings, now give us two potential threats to defend against. Then the plodding slows and stops, but never quite goes away, leaving us to wonder if we are safe or not. And that doubt is scary indeed.
The third example is the fifth movement from Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique. Once again we have basses in cellos beginning with an lumbering other worldly moving about, to which are quickly added once more high strings playing a rapid figure, a sort of musical version of nails on a chalkboard. Pizzicato notes climaxing with a descending trombone line leave us tentatively wading in an underworld of sorts. Then the flutes, piccolo and oboe impose a grotesque character of a devilish character wishing to be both friendly host and hostile interrogator. Then the protagonist herself arrives, the mocking and strident clarinet fixed on taunting us beyond what we can endure. The movement goes on with unexpected outbursts interspersed with retreats into quiet, death knells on the bells, the dies ire, ancient hymn of death in the requiem mass, and more unworldliness when the string players strike their strings with the wooden part of the bow. It is a parade of unexpected twists and orchestral effects that take the listener completely by surprise.
Symphonie Fantastique–Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath
What we learn from this short survey of scary classical music, is that music is scary when it sounds like things that scare us in real life, such as big (low) strong (loud) or overpowering (high and shrill) beings, and situations in which we don’t know what to expect, have no power over, and in which we hear things that naturally frighten us. The wonder of music is that it can do all of this in an environment we know to be safe. It is a grand bit of trickery that music pulls off, and one that we seem to universally enjoy, just as if we were delighting in the terrifying drop afforded us in an amusement park roller coaster or free fall ride. It is this toying with our emotional survival mechanisms that makes scary music scary.
2 thoughts on “Why Scary Classical Music is Scary”
Great article. I do think that more clarity needs to be given in regards to what exactly in a piece makes the music “scary”. The things which you point to, while definitely capable of arousing a feeling of fear, do not necessarily create that effect, and in fact, they often create a very different one. For instance, extremes in register, tempo, orchestration, accent, volume, etc. can often create a comedic effect, or, more interestingly, a grotesque one. Similarly, unpredictability can create fear, but it can also be used comically, or, again, more interestingly, grotesquely. The ultimate master of all of these effects is Shostakovich-he often combines humor, terror, and the grotesque into one, for instance in the second movement of his Symphony no. 10. There, he also manages to turn the whole thing into a Gogolian parody of the military march and of Stalin’s infamous Doctor’s plot. The music is literally a representation of a heart beating in terror. See also the 4th movement of his Symphony no. 13, Fears (Fears are dying out in Russia).
It is also interesting that our bodies respond in sometimes similar ways to fear and comedy. For instance, we cry from fear or sustained laughter.