Scary Music, Then and Now

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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?