5 Techniques Horror Movie Composers Use to Elicit Fear in Audiences

Modern horror film soundtracks are a blend of old-school, operatic string themes and creative sound effects, and composers are now able to masterfully evoke subtle reactions from their audiences through diverse techniques. It’s not just about jump scares and terror nowadays; it’s also about tension, suspense, eeriness, discomfort, anxiety, and even paranoia. 

We’ve actually gone through the brief history of scoring horror films and how this genre evolved over the decades. The earliest horror ‘talkies’ used orchestral soundtracks and epic operatic themes to instil fear. Nowadays, composers have a wider pool of tricks and treats at their disposal, and they use them masterfully to keep us on the edge of our seats. 

To elicit emotional responses from their audiences, composers use certain techniques that push horror movies to the next, scarier level. Here are some common techniques you can expect to find in horror movies:

1. Increased tempos and crescendos

One of the most common techniques found in horror movies is the use of crescendos to heighten suspense and anticipation. The best example of this is Jaws, where the simple two-note theme gradually increases its tempo as the killer shark gets closer. It’s both a signal to the audience that danger is nearby, and a means of growing tension in wait for the jump scare. It’s a highly effective strategy that triggers our primal fear and our flight-or-fight response, keeping us on the edge of our seat waiting for the release. 

2. Low-frequency sound effects

Modern horror scores tend to focus a lot more on sound design and unusual sound effects that create tension and an unsettling feeling. Low-frequency sound effects have a dark vibe about them that tells our brains that something is wrong, something is off, which is exactly what horror film directors want us to feel. We’re not just making this up; science says that low-frequency noises can have a negative effect on humans, triggering headaches, irritation, feelings of tiredness, and pressure on eardrums. 

3. The use of voices in the score

In the old days of horror films, soundtracks were purely instrumental, operatic, relying on orchestras to get the job done. But it wasn’t before long that, through experimentation, composers realized that inserting voices into the music made things even more unsettling. One of the earliest examples of this is Friday the 13th, which features some very unsettling vocal work by composer Harry Manfredini. The “ki ki ki, ma ma ma” sounds featured in the movie come from “Kill her, mommy,” which makes the tune even more disturbing to listen to.

4. Sound effects that mimic real-life sounds

Horror film directors and composers really want their audience to be as immersed in the action as possible, and they’ll stop at nothing to achieve this. With the help of technology, they’re able to insert real-life sounds into the soundtracks, giving them a more authentic and instantly recognizable sound. The best example of this technique is not a horror movie per se, but still a pretty scary one, namely Terminator 2. The main theme of the 1991 movie sounds uncomfortably metallic, industrial even, reminiscent of the killer robot’s origins. That peculiar sound, composer Brad Fiedel explained, was the result of hitting a cast-iron frying pan with a hammer. 

5. Harmonic and musical oddities

The human brain reacts to music in fascinating ways. Our primal instincts can immediately recognize when a sound or a note is in the wrong place, and horror music composers love to play tricks with our minds. Notes and compositions that seem out of place, that don’t go well together, that aren’t harmonious – our brains can pick up on these cues and think ‘something’s off here.’ Sudden increases or decreases in tempo and volume throw us off and signal to us that something is about to happen, which makes us uncomfortable and triggers our fight-or-flight response. 

Another similar technique used by composers is layering ‘happy music’ with scary movie scenes. Think of A Clockwork Orange and Kubrick’s use of Gene Kelly’s Singin’ in the Rain during some very uncomfortable torture scenes. You can never listen to that song in the same way again after hearing it in the movie. 

Scoring horror with Cutting Room Music

Here at Cutting Room Music, we’ve dived into the dark, twisted world of horror movies several times. Our co-founder Adonis Tsilimparis has scored more than a few scary movies, and here’s what he has to say about where this genre is heading, and what it means for composers. 

“Nowadays, there is a fine line between the “score” and the “sound design. “Many recent horror films have been dominated by a carefully constructed pattern of sound effects with touches of musical notation here and there. 

I, too, have done the same thing for some of the horror films I scored, including Dementia 13. The director did not want too much of a traditional orchestral score. He was looking more for sounds that no one has ever heard before. Luckily, with the wide universe of synth patches and sound banks out there, I was able to give him what he wanted. In the end, the score was probably 70% sound design and the rest being musical score. 

The trend seems to be continuing with no real change in sight. It begs the question of where it will go from here.”

If you’re an aspiring or established director looking for skilled and talented composers to help you tell your story through music, reach out to Cutting Room Music to see how we can bring your ideas to life. 

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