Music in Horror Movies – A Brief History of Fear

History of Horror Movie Music | CuttingRoomMusic

Did you know that Alfred Hitchcock originally intended for the shower scene in Psycho to have no music? Try to imagine your favorite scary movies without their eerie-yet-delicious soundtracks and think whether they would still have the same effect on you. 

Each genre of film employs specific techniques when it comes to scoring. Comedies are usually accompanied by upbeat music, adventure or action movies use dramatic effects and loud, powerful scoring to keep viewers engaged, while dramas play on our emotions with scores and harmonies that make us feel uplifted. 

When it comes to horror films, things are very different. More often than not, what horror movies present us with are not pleasant images or situations, eliciting tension, fear, suspense, anxiety, and even revulsion or terror. Composers certainly don’t have it easy, as the right score can make or break such a movie. Imagine films like Halloween, Jaws, or Suspiria with different music – it’s virtually impossible, that’s how iconic these soundtracks are by now. 

We’re big fans of horror movies at Cutting Room Music, and we’ve even scored a few of them. So, in the spirit of ‘sharing is caring,’ we wanted to present you with a brief history of horror film scores, as well as some techniques that composers use to elicit (much enjoyable) fear in their audiences. 

In the beginning, there was (mostly) silence

The horror genre has been around since the very beginning of cinema. Obviously, during the silent film era, there were no soundtracks to begin with, and film directors had only the visual aspect to rely on for horrific effect. That all changed when sound was introduced to movies, and the first horror movie to have a soundtrack was 1922’s Nosferatu, directed by F. W. Murnau. Unfortunately, the original score has been lost, replaced in 1997 with new music by James Bernard. 

In the early days, horror films didn’t really have a proper soundtrack composed by scratch. Instead, directors and composers repurposed existing pieces of classical music to get their desired effect. King Kong (1933) was the first to break out of that mold. Initially, film studio RKO instructed composer Max Steiner to stick to repurposing existing music for budgetary reasons. However, director Merian C. Cooper disagreed, thinking that such an epic movie deserved an original soundtrack. He paid Steiner to compose and record original music for the film, which he did – in just six weeks and with the help of a 46-piece orchestra. Luckily, the folks at RKO loved the end result, and so King Kong became the first feature-length musical score written for an American movie. It was also the first movie score ever to be recorded on three separate tracks: music, sound effects, and dialogue.

1930’s to 1950’s: The golden era of horror movies

You know how people refer to the stretch of time between 1910 and 1960 as Hollywood’s ‘Golden Age?’ These were the most glamorous decades of Hollywood cinema, and the horror genre was no exception. Everything was grand, majestic, loud, and in-your-face. Including horror movies. 

When it comes to horror films, we could refer to this golden age as the age of ‘obvious’ horror. Think of movies like Bride of Frankenstein (1935), Dracula (1931), or Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954). They all had grand, impressive scores to go with the big scenes happening on the screen. These now-classic movies all featured bombastic, operatic orchestral scores, and not much in the area of sound design or effects. But that was about to change, thanks to the Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock.

The landscape of horror films took a hard turn in 1960, when the iconic Psycho was released. Not only did Hitchcock’s masterpiece employ never-before-seen directing techniques, he also changed the way horror movies were scored. Bernard Hermann wrote the eponymous score for Psycho, and Hitchcock himself stated that “33% of the effect of Psycho was due to the music.” 

We all know that infamous shower scene and the shrieking violins that accompany each stab of the knife. Hermann had a tight budget to work with, so he had to make the best of the resources available. He didn’t have the means to employ a 40-piece orchestra, so he made due with a small string ensemble and a lot of creativity. The result is probably the most recognizable sound in horror history. And to think that Hitchcock initially intended to have no music for that shower scene…

1970’s & 1980’s: An experiment in fear 

The Golden Age of Hollywood started losing its glamorous appeal in the 1960s, and soon enough, gone were the massive studio productions with huge budgets and majestic scores. There were, of course, some notable exceptions. In 1974, Steven Spielberg released Jaws, which featured an epic score by composer John Williams. The now-classic soundtrack earned Williams an Academy Award, even though it was a rather simple theme focused around just two notes. Two very unsettling notes. 

During the 1970s and especially in the 1980s, film directors and composers, especially those new to the scene, often had very limited budgets at their disposal. There were no 46-piece orchestras to record movie scores with, so they had to improvise and find other ways to elicit the desired reactions in movie audiences. 

The limited resources forced composers to experiment, and the result was another golden era of horror movies focused on synthesizers and electronic music. The best example from this time is John Carpenter’s Halloween, released in 1978. Carpenter only had $300,000 to make the movie, so there was no budget to hire a composer, let alone an orchestra. So, the director took matters into his own hands, creating the entire score himself in just three days on his keyboard. The Halloween theme has since become one of the most iconic film soundtracks of all time, with Carpenter even releasing a revamped version for the 2018 installment. 

The 1970s and 1980s were basically an experiment in fear, with composers constantly churning out new takes on traditional horror film scores. The emergence of electronic music and synthesizers allowed composers to play with sound design and come up with innovative scores that pushed the horror genre into new territories. Notable releases during this era include A Clockwork Orange (1971), The Omen (1976), The Exorcist (1973), The Shining (1980), The Thing (1982), and Videodrome (1983), just to name a few.

Modern horror film scores – the best of both worlds

Horror movies have come a long way since the days of Frankenstein or Dracula. Plots and scores alike have taken a darker turn, and innovations in technology and cinematography have pushed the fear and tension to new highs. Think of modern-day classics like Get Out, It Follows, Insidious, Hereditary, or A Quiet Place; these movies are tackling complex, unusual, and often highly disturbing matters, and their soundtracks match the level of complexity. 

Nowadays, film composers are no longer constrained by limited resources, particularly when it comes to the technologies they use. While horror movies no longer rely on dynamic orchestration and symphonic themes, composers still manage to hark back to the old days by mixing classic and modern techniques. In fact, the earliest example of mixing and matching different composition styles was Videodrome, back in 1983. Howard Shore starts off with classical orchestral music and gradually incorporates electronic music and synthesizers as the main character starts to lose track of what’s real and what isn’t. The two tracks are mixed and played in tandem, in an attempt to convey the character’s confusion. 

Composers and directors now tend to focus more on sound design and sound effects to create the right atmosphere. It’s not all about the jump scares anymore. Found-footage-style movies like The Blair Witch Project or Paranormal Activity don’t even have proper soundtracks, as they focus on ‘reality horror’ to elicit fear and tensions in viewers. Other movies employ LFEs, or low-frequency effects, to create an unsettling atmosphere and prolong the suspense. 

The future looks bright (or dark, if we’re going to stick to the theme here) for horror movies and music alike. It remains to be seen what composers come up with next, and we’ll have plenty of opportunities to see new and innovative scoring hit the big screens. This year alone there are some exciting launches in the works, including A Quiet Place 2, a new Conjuring movie, Don’t Breathe 2, Candyman, and last but not least, Halloween Kills

If you’re an aspiring or established director looking for talented composers to breathe musical life into your projects, reach out to Cutting Room Music to see if we can help. Let’s work together!

The Most Successful Theme Songs in Daniel Craig’s Bond Movies: Billie Eilish Tops Adele in Spotify Streams

When we hear the name Bond…James Bond, we immediately think of slick tuxedos, incredible charm and charisma, huge explosions, and of course, beautiful women. Agent 007 is by far the most thrilling spy anyone can think of, and James Bond movies have been a hit ever since the first movie came out back in 1962, starring the late Sean Connery. In fact, ‘Double O7’ was popular even before making it to the big screen, captivating readers since the first Bond novel was published in the 1950s.

Obviously, top-of-the-line acting done by some of the most talented people portraying James Bond made the movies a huge success. But apart from great actors, writers and directors, the movies were also brought to life by incredible soundtracks and music. Even as you are reading this, you can practically hear the classic Bond theme song playing in your head – or is it just us?

With a brand-new James Bond movie coming up in this year, what better time to talk about Agent 007 than now? Here at CuttingRoomMusic, music, and particularly soundtracks, are our bread and butter, and we wanted to find a fun way to pass the time while we wait for the new movie. 

We analyzed the theme songs of all the James Bond movies starring Daniel Craig, to see how they performed in charts, sales, and streams. Theme songs for the Daniel Craig 007 series were recorded by artists such as Adele, Chris Cornell, Billie Eilish, and other A-list contemporary musicians. 

To calculate the revenue for the number of streams on platforms such as Spotify and YouTube, we used Music Gateway’s streaming royalties calculator.

Let’s see which songs made the most noise.

1. Casino Royale – Chris Cornell: You Know My Name 

Casino Royale was the first Daniel Craig Bond movie, and what better recording artist to helm the iconic franchise reboot with a new theme song than late Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell? “You Know My Name” was a bold choice for the movie soundtrack, especially because it had been a long time since a rock artist had attempted to have a go at a James Bond theme song. 

Fortunately, the late Chris Cornell nailed it, and the song was well received. It was bold and unique, and hearing the song, we all knew that James Bond was back. The song peaked at #7 in the UK charts, and 79 in the US Billboard Hot 100, where it spent 2 weeks.

“You Know My Name” sold 323,000 digital copies, according to Variety. On Spotify alone, the song racked up over 48 million streams since its release, which roughly equates to almost $200,000 in revenue. On YouTube, on the channel it got originally released on, the song racked up 21 million views, about $36,750.

2. Quantum of Solace – Jack White & Alicia Keys: Another Way to Die

With this new Bond series, it seemed like the creators wanted to explore new possibilities with music. The Quantum of Solace theme song featured two vocalists, namely Jack White and Alicia Keys. Their chemistry captured the essence of the movie, all the way from the electric guitar parts to the quieter piano moments.

It was a rather unique pairing, and it definitely brought up debates among fans related to whether two vocalists were a great choice or not for a Bond theme song. The song didn’t perform so well in the charts, peaking at #81 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, and spending only one week there. It sold around 260,000 units.

Jack White and Alicia Keys’ Another Way to Die racked up around 30 million streams on Spotify, earning about $120,000 to date. On YouTube, the music video has been viewed 21 million times, making around $36,750.

3. Skyfall – Adele: Skyfall

Quite frankly, this song exploded once it got released, and you could hear it everywhere. Adele brought her A-game—as usual—going into the song, and created a masterpiece. The iconic song, with the same name as the movie, even brought an Oscar for Adele for Best Original Song.

The song captures the dark and moody plot of the film, hitting sweet spots of both nostalgia and tragedy. The song breathed life into the movie, and it was also very catchy, of course. Adele’s Skyfall sold 2 million copies in the US alone, went double Platinum, and peaked at number 8 on the US Billboard Hot 100 chart. It became Adele’s first song to debut in the top 10, with 261,000 copies sold in the US during its first three days. The song spent 30 weeks in the Billboard Hot 100 chart.

As for streaming numbers, on Spotify, the song is currently at almost 180 million plays, which roughly equates to $720,000 in revenue for the artist. On YouTube, the music video racked up over 423 million views, which is roughly $740,250 in revenue.

4. Spectre – Sam Smith: Writings On The Wall

Without a doubt, Sam Smith felt a little bit of pressure when writing the new Bond song: there was a lot to live up to after Adele’s Skyfall. But luckily, the artist came through just fine. Sam Smith also took home an Academy Award for Best Original Song for “Writings On The Wall,” as well as a Golden Globe Award for Best Original Song.

The lyrics narrate Bond’s character impressively, and the melody blends exquisitely with classic Bond theme songs. Even though the song won an Oscar and several other awards, some fans and music connoisseurs still argue whether the song is overrated or not.

Writings On The Wall peaked at #71 on the Billboard Hot 100 and spent 11 weeks in the top 100. The song went Platinum in the US, selling over 1 million units. As far as streaming numbers go, on Spotify, the song has been played over 186 million times, which equates to about $744,000. On YouTube, the song racked up 231 million views, which is roughly $924,000 in revenue for the artist.

5. No Time to Die – Billie Eilish: No Time To Die

No Time to Die by Billie Eilish is the latest Bond theme song. It also marks an important milestone: the 18-year-old artist is the youngest person to ever record a 007 theme song. The tune is full of mystery, it’s haunting, dark, and moody—in line with both Billie Eilish and James Bond. The song complements both the recording artist and Agent Double O7. 

“No Time To Die” can also be regarded as a swan song for Daniel Craig, as most likely this is the actor’s final outing as James Bond. The lyrics of the song are in perfect harmony with the chords and orchestration and seamlessly fit in the Bond universe. Billie Eilish performed the song alongside legendary composer Hans Zimmer at the 2020 Brit Awards, and we’re yet to find out how many awards this theme song will take home.

Currently, the song sold 500,000 units in the US, and its streaming numbers are rising at a fast pace. On Spotify, it has been streamed 264 million times ($1 million in revenue), already surpassing previous Bond theme songs in just a couple of months. On YouTube, the music video has been viewed 27 million times, earning $47,250.

Movie NameTheme SongUS Billboard Hot 100 Peak PositionTotal Spotify StreamsTotal Spotify RevenueTotal YouTube ViewsTotal YouTube RevenueUS RIAA Certification
Casino Royale (2006)Chris Cornell – You Know My Name7948,000,000$200,00021,000,000$36,750
Quantum of Solace (2008)Jack White & Alicia Keys – Another Way to Die8130,000,000$120,00021,000,000$36,750
Skyfall (2012)Adele – Skyfall8180,000,000$720,000423,000,000$740,2502x Platinum
Spectre (2015)Sam Smith – Writings On The Wall71186,000,000$744,000231,000,000$924,000Platinum
No Time To Die (2021)Billie Eilish – No Time To Die16264,000,000$1,000,00027,000,000$47,250Gold

Conclusion

There are countless elements that make a movie great, and one of them, of course, is the music. James Bond movies have always been known for incorporating incredible music in cinematography, all the way from singers to world-class composers like Hans Zimmer, David Arnold, and John Barry. James Bond theme songs are so iconic that the movies would be totally different without them, and the soundtrack of the films is also a crucial element in setting the mood and tone for the viewing experience.

Here at CuttingRoomMusic, we’re on the same mission: making movies come alive with incredible sound design and original compositions. If you’re looking for a partner to breathe life into your work with music, our dedicated team of talented professionals with a wide range of skills, experience, and connections is ready to jump aboard your project. We love what we do, we do it with passion and we look forward to working with you.