Composing scary sounds not for the faint of heart

Horror movies have produced some of the most memorable music in film history.

From the double-bass pulse that signals the presence of the giant shark in "Jaws," to the shrieking strings that slice along with Norman Bates' knife in "Psycho's" famous shower scene, horror films have contained some of cinema's most unforgettable musical moments.

Indeed, given the visceral nature of the genre, music in horror films often plays a pivotal role in ratcheting up the tension, and over the past eight decades an army of approaches and techniques have been invented to make audiences feel uneasy, nervous, fearful and downright terrified.

So how do composers use score as scare tactic? For starters, the experts say it's usually a good idea to turn the music into a blunt instrument.

"In horror films the most successful moments usually have nothing to do with melody, they're more gestures," says composer Christopher Young, whose horror work includes 1987's "Hellraiser" and 2004's "The Grudge." "The shower scene in 'Psycho' (1960) is the best example -- that drift down on the strings is a gesture but everyone on the street knows that. And the 'Jaws' (1975) moment, two notes and everyone knows what you're talking about."

The most commonly used tool in the horror score kit is the "sting" -- a quick and loud jolt of sound that coincides with a frightening image or the attack of a killer or creature. "Stingers are a form of music that are unique to movies," Young adds. "There's no other venue of musicmaking that has a window of opportunity for writing these little splats of instrumental sound that exist for the sole purpose of getting the little girls in the audience to jump out of their seats. In two or three seconds, you have to do enough so that it isn't melodrama, that it does the job and also it's your signature."

But according to Don Coscarelli, the director behind 1979's cult thriller "Phantasm," using stingers can be a slippery slope. "Truthfully, using loud musical stings is generally the easy way out," he declares. "If you look at some of the great scares in movie history, you need to examine the moments leading up, not necessarily the shock itself. Pino Donaggio's work in De Palma's 'Carrie' (1976) is a great example."

While directors often push for bigger, louder stings, composers frequently resist the notion. "We go through every frame of the movie and I show him where I want certain stings and he'll tell me when he thinks it's too much," says "Hostel" (2005) director Eli Roth of his working relationship with composer Nathan Barr. "Like on (2002's) 'Cabin Fever,' I look back and I think I over-stung it -- there are too many stings. I really pulled back on those for 'Hostel.' I think we did one or two and maybe one in 'Hostel II.'"

Sometimes it's not what the sting sounds like but exactly where it comes in that determines its effectiveness. When John Carpenter scored his own horror film "Halloween" in 1978, he forever changed some of the conventions of the genre. "There was an unwritten rule in suspense or horror films where you'd begin the music a little early," says Carpenter. "(But) I was trying to do the sting right on the moment something came into frame and I remember working really hard on that. Sometimes it had to be done in editing because I was not fast enough."

Now almost 30 years later, composers like Brian Reitzell are still playing with the timing of stings. "In '30 Days of Night' (Sony), rather than editing everything right on the cut, I liked it to be very much like as you would react to the picture, so a lot of stuff is just behind the picture, and a lot of the drum performances I did are one take -- watching and just reacting to it."

"Hostel" composer Barr says the quick sting is just one arrow in the horror music quiver. "There's a canon of effects that have now become a part of the genre," he says "The tremolo strings, the Ligeti string effects, string harmonics, the brass effects and swells."

Indeed, most of the orchestral pyrotechnics and effects used in these scores hail from dissonant, modernistic, 20th century concert music as practiced by Stravinsky, Ligeti, Bartok and others -- music that has found its way directly into movies like 1973's "The Exorcist" and 1980's "The Shining."

"A lot of 20th century music is not necessarily supposed to sound comfortable and familiar," says Daniel Licht, who scores Showtime's "Dexter" and has written horror scores like 1996's "Thinner" and "Hellraiser: Bloodline." "It's all about pushing the envelope, so it can work for a starker approach to scoring where you're not really doing melodies, but creating more textural, ambient sounds for scenes."

Ironically, while 20th century techniques have fallen out of favor in the concert world, they're still useful in film where they connect audiences in ways never achieved in the concert hall. "If you put 20th century music on the stage, most audience members will put their fingers in their ears and run screaming from the hall," Young says, "but if you put it in a movie and they're seeing the correct imagery, it's okay."

The flip side of 20th century music -- at least for the latter half of the century -- is rock and its offshoots, music which has always had mixed success fusing with film when it's not of the simple needle-drop variety. But horror and its aggressive, psychotic energy has always had a natural connection to rock, as witnessed by the goth-horror stage personas of rockers like Ozzy Osbourne, Marilyn Manson and Rob Zombie, who now boasts successful careers as both musician and horror filmmaker.

While Zombie's movies, 2003's "House of 1000 Corpses," 2005's "The Devil's Rejects" and this August's MGM/Dimension Films remake of John Carpenter's "Halloween," have featured varying musical approaches, he has used a rock sensibility in scoring where appropriate. Tyler Bates' "Devil's Rejects" score moves from traditional orchestral music early on to a hard-core rock vibe in its climactic scenes.

"We brought a bunch of musicians in and just jammed," Zombie says. "There were multiple drummers playing at one time and bass players and you don't want it to sound necessarily like rock music but just like some kind of acid rock jam thing at the end. When we put traditional score in, it sounded like we were trying to make it exciting like some big action scene, when we were more trying to make it like some crazy head trip."

Musician Charlie Clouser of Nine Inch Nails has been particularly successful with this approach in his scores to the "Saw" films, and he finds the mix of film score and rock sensibilities exhilarating. "There's a wonderful path to being able to use a lot of cool sounds and nifty stuff from your other life, whether it be rock 'n' roll or whatever, but still find a good voice for the purpose at hand," he says. "I always remember the score to the first 'Resident Evil' (2002) which was Marco Beltrami and Marilyn Manson, and I remember thinking that was a great mix of worlds and sounded like it was a blast to make. And now that directors have grown up listening to Marilyn Manson, the world is more receptive to bringing those kinds of influences to scores."

Budget can also play a large role in a composer's choices since horror films are often made with limited resources. Marco Beltrami created a highly influential sound for Wes Craven's "Scream" films partially because he didn't have much money to spend on scoring. "I wanted to explore instrumental timbres and the extended technique sounds that instruments could make and work that as part of the sound of the score," he recalls. "We had an orchestra for two sessions (but) not a very big orchestra. I wanted this scratchy, whispery sound to supplement the strings, so I got everyone at the session including Wes Craven and the producers to all sit out with the orchestra and whistle. It made this cluster of pitches since everyone didn't match each other. It started as a budgetary measure but I kept it for 'Scream 2' and '3' because it worked so well."

Director-musician Zombie is a firm believer in pulling back on the score at key points. "I find that long passages of quiet really make an audience uncomfortable," he says. "When there's no score and real-life sounds, you feel more like you're watching real people, and that starts getting to you more. Sometimes the score makes you feel like you're safe because you know you're watching a movie."

But the opposite can be true as well. "With '30 Days of Night,' we discovered that the minute we took away some of this dark atmosphere sound design that we were creating, you would be released from this nonstop world of terror these people were going through," Reitzell points out.

The possibilities for experimentation and the ongoing need to connect with the audience has made horror's musical possibilities wide-ranging. Carpenter sees the genre from both perspectives: He's scored most of his own horror films and his spine-tingling Michael Myers theme, written for the original "Halloween," is a horror film touchstone. Carpenter's father had taught music at the University of Kentucky and was a well-known Nashville session musician, so the director grew up being exposed to a wide variety of music and had played in a rock band in high school before studying film at USC. When it came time to find music for his own low budget films like "Assault on Precinct 13" (1976) and "Halloween," as Carpenter tells it, "I was fast and I was cheap."

Despite this low-budget, do-it-yourself aesthetic, Carpenter says his inspiration for the groundbreaking "Halloween Theme" came from one of the great giants of symphonic film scoring. "My favorite composer, and the one who influenced me the most, was Bernard Herrmann. He'd come up with several very powerful but very simple, distinctive melodies for the movies he worked on; his work is just staggering. The 'Halloween Theme' came about because my father taught me 5/4 time on a set of bongos, and I was noodling around on the piano one day and came up with 5/4 time on octaves. And then I did this modulation down and it was very simple, nothing to it. But when it came time to score the movie I thought it keeps you in suspense, it gathers your attention to the screen and gives you a little chill. The modulations that I do, the key changes are based on a lot of the key changes Bernard Herrmann was doing in (1951's) 'The Day the Earth Stood Still.'"

Carpenter's sense of experimentation paved the way for the current explorations of music and sound design in the horror genre, as illustrated by Reitzell's music for "30 Days of Night." To realize some of the score, Reitzell purchased a variety of metallic building materials from Home Depot, including an $800 pottery wheel that could support 150 pounds of weight and spin up to 280 rpm. "I set up a bunch of tin discs around it and mounted a mallet in the center of the pottery wheel that would spin around and hit the discs," he says. "When I was recording it, if that stick would have flown off it would have impaled me, so the whole time I was recording it I was wearing goggles and body armor and I was scared, and I think that kind of infused itself in the recording process."

Horror seems uniquely suited to provide these kind of opportunities, and composers who've worked in the genre appear fascinated by the opportunity to find different approaches to their work. "I was thinking, we're trapped in this mall for a good part of this movie so, the most important thing was to try and keep that sense of impending doom alive," Tyler Bates says of his 2004 'Dawn of the Dead' remake score. "I knew we'd need a large orchestra to really convey some of the size and weight of that, as I described to (the director) as 'a black ocean of death waiting outside.'"

Often instrumentation can express ideas subliminally, as in Daniel Licht's orchestration of his "blood theme" for the Showtime hit "Dexter." "I used a combination of piano, playing the Dexter melody with this wine glass," he says. "The wine glass reminds one of the sound of sharp knives, but the piano is very introspective so it becomes a sharp-knife-sounding introspection."

"Some of my favorite moments are when the music is being asked to describe the very twisted world in which these characters exist," says Young. "In every horror movie I've worked on, there are these tiny windows where reality seems to completely lose its meaning and the music is able to dive behind the image and turn it to something perplexing and mysterious."

But while the horror genre often offers composers plenty of room for experimentation, Young laments the fact that, despite the gratification of doing something different and challenging, its rare that a horror score garners a composer the public acclaim he or she may deserve. "It's the melodies the audience wants," he says. "It kind of hurts to know I've invested so much of my efforts into a style of music that not many people are interested in except the hard-core horror crowd, and to me there's stuff I've done in that sonic madness mode that's much more compelling than the tonal material I've written. And a lot of guys who work in horror probably feel the same way -- mom and dad don't say, 'Gee son, can you play us your latest horror score?'"