Scary Music, Then and Now

Monday, October 25, 2010 - 10:35 PM

What’s the scariest piece of music you know? Halloween is this Sunday, so it seems the perfect occasion to ask.

Movie themes come easily to mind – Bernard Hermann’s shower scene music for Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, John Williams’s shark theme from Jaws, or the little motif (usually credited to Herbert Stothart) that accompanies Miss Gulch’s bicycle ride in The Wizard of Oz are all scary music, written to accompany specific visual images and enhance the intended mood. You could even argue that the music itself creates the mood. With the sound turned off, the underwater sequence that opens Jaws could be something from The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau. The scene isn’t creepy at all until you add the music.

On the other hand, music that isn’t written to be scary can become so if it’s attached to specific images. Bach’s Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor is used to terrifying effect in The Godfather, underscoring the sequence in which Michael Corleone becomes his nephew’s godfather at the baby’s baptism at the same moment he becomes the mafia godfather through the murders of rival crime family leaders. And as glorious as Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 can be, experiencing it in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange is – and please forgive me – a real eye-opener. 

The music that has frightened me most in film is that of György Ligeti. Several of his compositions pop up in another Kubrick film, 2001: A Space Odyssey. They accompany images of the giant monolith in that film, and the music’s lack of a tonal center makes it a perfect match for that mysterious and otherworldly object. Just thinking about those images and that sound gives me the creeps. 

Opera is full of scary music, but at the top of my list is the final scene from Poulenc’s opera Dialogues of the Carmelites, with the guillotine sound effect written right into the score as the nuns ascend the gallows to meet their deaths. And for stand-alone scary music not associated with specific visuals, I give the nod to the brutal, merciless march of Mars, Bringer of War, from Gustav Holst’s The Planets.

Well, I’ve given myself a good Halloween scare in writing this, but it’s your turn now.  What’s the scariest music you know?


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Comments [42]

Alan from Chelsea

the final scene from Salome, in Deborah Voigt's recording, is actually terrifying. ending of Schnittke Piano Quintet. Peter Maxwell Davies, The Lighthouse.

Dec. 08 2010 09:59 AM
DM BERRY from Asbury Park, NJ

The scariest music I know? Have to be lots of Tom Waits' music - "Trouble's Braids" for instance, or "Underground" or "Hang on St. Christopher""

Nov. 19 2010 03:00 PM

Penderecki in the Shining or the Exorcist

Nov. 17 2010 07:17 AM
Victoria Keller from Manhattan

The witch calling up calling up the ghost of Saul from Honegger's opera King David used to scare my older brother and me as children - made scarier because we really didn't know what was going on, it was all in the music and the timbre of the voice.

Nov. 14 2010 04:08 PM
David Sanua from Brooklyn

I would suggest the Scherzo from Bruckner's Ninth Symphony. You can hear the footsteps of the very devil in the opening pizzicati. And the trio conveys his very suave velvet voice.

Nov. 08 2010 10:57 PM
Kenneth Bennett Lane from Lake Hiawatha, NJ

Some people might still remember the radio program, "The Green Hornet" in which Rimsky-Korsakoff's "Flight of the Bumblebee" was supposed to be scary. Time has passed and yesterday's scary is today's bogey man, not very frightening. Now, today, we have HALLOWEEN, what could be a better time to hear music which extols the scary. Moussorgsky's "Night on Bald Mountain," Grieg's "In the Hall of the Mountain King," Sibelius' "Valse Triste," Verdi's Requiem's "Dies Irae."Schubert's "Erlkoenig,"Johann Sebastian Bach's "Toccata and Fugue in D Minor," Gilbert & Sullivan's "Ruddigore's" "When the Night Wind Howls," Igor Stravinsky's "Firebird," Victor Herbert's "March of the Wooden Soldiers," Tschaikovsky's "Swan Lake," Wagner's " "Voirspiel" to Act 3 of "Siegfried," the Execution Scene from Verdi's "Don Carlos," the Wolf's theme from Prokofieff's "Peter and the Wolf," John Williams' Shark's Music from the film "Jaws," Bernard Hermann's chilling shower scene knifing in the film "Psycho," Dukas' "Sorcerer's Apprentice" and Carl Orff's "Carmina Burana" are some of the more familiar chestnuts, but there are many more musical examples.

Nov. 01 2010 08:11 PM
Gerald from Yonkers

When I was a kid watching Bernstein's Young People's Concerts on TV, I was totally spooked by Ives' "Unanswered Question," with its mysterious, unchanging strings, weird flutes, and unresolved trumpet line. The piece has somewhat of a different effect on me now (I still love it), but the memory of the chill it gave me then still lingers.

Nov. 01 2010 10:26 AM
Michael Meltzer

At the end of a pledge drive for the "only classical radio station in NY," on the eve of Hallowe'en, and looking at the postings for today's recordings, I have to say that WQXR not knowing the composer of the
"Erl-King" frightens me more than anything else.

Oct. 31 2010 04:27 PM
Jamie from Brooklyn

The Grand Inquisitor's scene in Don Carlo.

And another vote for the Dies Irae from Verdi Requiem.

Oct. 31 2010 03:02 PM
Liz from Long Beach, NY

How about the Hannibal soundtrack?? Goosebumps...

Oct. 31 2010 02:23 PM
Susan Ames

The Wolfsschlucht scene from Der Freischutz by Carl Maria von Weber, as well as some other music from this opera.

Oct. 31 2010 11:06 AM
Jane from Highland Park, New Jersey

"A Night On Bald Mountain" hands down was/is the scariest music for me. This might be because of the animation with which I associate the music--"Fantasia" had images I will never forget. The mountain awakening in the form of a devil left me terrified and yet fascinated, mesmerized.

Oct. 31 2010 11:01 AM
Frank Feldman

I too would like to see a photo of Steve Sullivan. He's my favorite overnight host. Tell him he can talk more!

Oct. 31 2010 10:50 AM
Michael Meltzer

In the late 1970's, as a member of the NY Choral Society, I sang in the Verdi Requiem, a work I had only heard before in recording.
When we went on stage, I was positioned in the front row of basses, about five feet from the bass drum. Nothing I had heard on recording, or in rehearsal with the piano accompanist could have prepared me for the "Die Irae" on stage.
The first CRACK!! of the bass drum was the sonic equivalent of being hit by a locomotive. I jumped out of my skin (but didn't drop my score). Usually the word "scary" involves something to think about. This "scare" was so sudden and so visceral that I don't know what to call it, but I can't ever forget it.

Oct. 31 2010 01:58 AM
Pamela from The Bronx

My choices are Danse Macabre by Saint-Saens and Carl Orff's Carmina Burana which, I believe, has been featured in a number of horror movies.

Oct. 30 2010 03:11 AM
Ron Owens from Mountain Lakes, NJ

As a middle school music educator, every Halloween, I played Schubert's Erl King for my students. The Erl King- The King of Death who snatches a little boy from his father's arms. The terror of the little boy fits right into Halloween. And my students loved it!

Oct. 29 2010 10:38 AM
Victor from West Orange, NJ

While mentioned Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 from Kubrick’s 'A Clockwork Orange', Jeff certainly omitted Rossini overture from the the same movie, which is being fun, in this film sound like a quite diabolic dissonance with itself.

Oct. 29 2010 09:23 AM
Lynda from NYC

I don't know where else to post this, but having Jef and Elliott on together is worth every dollar I donated. What fun.

Oct. 28 2010 02:45 PM
Thomas from Sparta, NJ

Dukas's "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" has scared me ever since I had nightmares about Mickey Mouse and those brooms when I was a small child. Disney used Mussorgsky's "Night on Bald Mountain" in "Fantasia" as well, but "Sorcerer" was scarier!

Oct. 28 2010 02:34 PM
Blossom by the Sea from Long Beach, NY

Stravinsky's Petrushka with its frenetic horns builds anxiety and dread. The blurring of the lines between what is real and perceived fantasy is frightening. Until WQXR posed this question, I never thought of this opera as relevant to Halloween which is the day when the borders between the real world and the other world are most permeable. Creepy! thanks WQXR! Love the music, love the hosts, love Alec Baldwin's tongue-in-cheek pledge drive plea!

Oct. 28 2010 12:37 PM
Steve from Upper West Side

In retrospect, the most frightening piece of music in my experience is "The Wedding March."

Oct. 28 2010 11:39 AM
tina corona from CALDWELL NJ


Oct. 28 2010 11:37 AM
Victor Barranca from Brooklyn, NY 11215

Most frightening of all would be the possibility of no WQXR and no Jeff Spurgeon. Keep up the good work.

Oct. 28 2010 10:26 AM
Bob from Huntington, NY

Perhaps one has to go back to childhood memories to recall being really scared. I remember being quite frightened by the french horns in Peter and the Wolf. Prokofiev enhanced the Wolf with very sinister music. Happy Halloween to all.

Oct. 28 2010 09:35 AM
Frank Feldman

Ligeti requiem.

Oct. 27 2010 08:42 PM
Anne Phelan from Brooklyn NY

Ravel's "La Valse," and Liszt's "Mephisto Walz," yet I consider most waltzes anything but scary. Bartok can be scary, too, but my vote is for "Concerto for Orchestra," particularly the first movement.

Oct. 27 2010 06:44 PM
Angela from NYC

The soundtrack to The Exorcist and the music from the scene in Rosemary's Baby when the devil is impregnating her spook me out every time.

Oct. 27 2010 06:31 PM

lots of good choices so far. the 'pines of the appian way' from the 'pines of rome' is one of my coices and my ultimate is ravel's 'bolero'.

Oct. 27 2010 05:46 PM
Judy from Westchester

I agree with Stephen Gyetko. Bach's Tocatta and Fugue in D minor originally popularized in the first Phantom of the Opera movie, is to this day, the scariest piece of music I have ever heard. Every time I hear it on WQXR, I make sure all the lights are on.

Oct. 27 2010 05:45 PM
Stephen Gyetko

It's got to be Bach's Tocatta and Fugue in D minor. Lon Cheny, Phantom of the Opera, that skull face when he's unmasked. I STILL have nightmares. Shivers indeed!

Oct. 27 2010 01:35 PM
Rich from The Bronx

A piece for piano solo by Alkan whose title in English translates as "The Song of the Mad Woman by the Sea". Quiet, subtle, sinister and eventually a flesh crawler.

Oct. 27 2010 01:25 PM
kay from nyc

Bartok's Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta. Very beautiful, but very spooky.

Oct. 27 2010 11:10 AM

The theme from the movie Scream. Solo piano at the beginning playing just one note at a time then a solo female voice - it just gives me the tone poem impression of isolation.

Oct. 27 2010 11:01 AM
Michael Meltzer

I'm not sure how frightened adults can become because of a piece of music, but children certainly can.
There was a pop tune from early in the last century by Chas. Daniels & Gus Kahn called "Chloe," or "Song of the Swamp," that became a kind of American art-song, a big favorite on the Ted Mack Amateur Hour (and finally a comic routine on Milton Berle).
There is almost nothing more frightening to a child than being lost, and with the very first fortissimo "CHLOE!!," any child knew someone was terribly, terribly lost. It scared me every time I heard it.

Oct. 27 2010 10:31 AM
Sisko24 from NYC area

Although any piece of music could be scary depending upon the context the listener brings to hearing it, I find almost everything Olivier Messiaen to be scary. Scary in that he deluded himself - and others - into believing the cacophony he penned was actually music.

As for more conventional works and composers, there aren't many I find scary although a good performance of the Mozart or Verdi Requiem can give me goosebumps.

Oct. 27 2010 10:27 AM
Steve from NY

Anything on Q2. What's frightening is that anyone thinks that's music.

Oct. 27 2010 09:22 AM
Michael Meltzer

Van Cliburn playing the Chopin B-flat minor Scherzo with almost no pedal. The left hand arpeggiated accompaniment spans almost two octaves. He holds the bottom note with his fifth finger and reaches everything else, secco. Frightening, it almost made me quit the piano.
Just about as scary is Garrick Ohlsson playing the Chopin Etude in Sixths like it was the Mendelssohn Spinning Song.
If one of those two doesn't scare you away from the piano, nothing will!

Oct. 27 2010 02:12 AM
DuckDeadeye from NYC

I agree with "Night on Bald Mountain." I'd like to add "The Sorcerer's Apprentice."

And "When the Night Wind Howls" from Gilbert & Sullivan's "Ruddigore."

Oct. 27 2010 01:34 AM
James Tevenan from Spokane, WA

Leon Boelmann's Toccata from his "Gothic Suite" for organ is my vote. Faux-scary c minor tune with flighty accompaniment figure conjures images of darkened stone spaces. It builds to a thunderously happy C Major ending, ghoulies and ghosties in full flight.

Oct. 26 2010 09:45 PM

I do have to agree with you Jeff that Kubrick's use of Beethoven's 9th symphony in ''CLOCKWORK'' was brilliant!! Its almost scary how Alex (the films hero) has that almost fetish enjoyment of that piece. It brings him such bliss as he prepares to engage in some of the old '' ultra violence'' (And when the tables are turned on the poor lad later in the film , his fetish turns into his nightmare) Such wonderful story telling.....such a terrific film hero. ( I can't imagine being so inspired by a particular piece of moving music..........or can I ? )

Oct. 26 2010 01:52 PM

I would love to see a photo of music host Steve Sullivan. He has the perfect voice for late night music listening. Please post one. Thanks

Oct. 26 2010 01:32 PM
Louise from NJ

Happy Halloween to everyone at QXR! I have such vivid memories of my grandmother playing the Danse Macabre by Saint-Saens and Schubert's Erlkonig on the piano as she told us the story. Of course, Night on Bald Mountain is a great scary standby. I don't remember Bach's Passacaglia in the Godfather but Baryshnikov danced to it in the 1985 movie White Nights in a harrowing dance with Death. Your take on Mars was interesting! I have always found that very stirring but then I have always found Ravel's La Valse terrifying! (PS - I'm glad you're back!)

Oct. 26 2010 12:14 PM

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