Illustration: Michael Haddad
A theme song can be the cherry on top of an iconic film or TV series.
In some cases, it can catapult a film’s reach beyond the filmmakers’ wildest dreams. In the context of horror movies, there are themes that have been sampled by generations of music producers. In this article, we’ll explore some of the key aspects that sonically tie horror together as it relates to sound design, music theory, and sampling—so you can get inspired to create your most sinister-sounding music yet.
Sound design tips for creating haunting atmospheres
When it comes to sound design in horror-inspired tracks, your goal should be to immerse your listeners as deeply as possible into your desired atmosphere. If you’re not sure how to begin, create a mood board with some imagery, watch one of the films that inspired you in the first place, or follow these foolproof tips to get started.
Get inspired by classic synths
A synthesizer can bring an otherworldly touch to a theme song. In 1977, Dario Argento’s Suspiria was released, and along came one of the greatest horror soundtracks of all time. Written and performed by progressive rock band Goblin, the sonic aspects of the Suspiria OST inspired other composers (including John Carpenter) to feature synthesizers alongside acoustic instruments.
Thanks in part to Goblin, synthesizers became more prominent in horror movie soundtracks, and by the 1980s, they were a commonplace instrument in the genre. Modern films and TV shows inspired by the ’80s (like Stranger Things) have recognized and embraced this. If you’re looking for a place to start, explore some classic synth patches from the Prophet 5, the Roland Juno-106, or the ARP Odyssey.
Use ambient soundscapes
Establishing the right atmosphere is of utmost importance in horror. The intensity of a scene depends heavily on the mood in question—and the best scares use tension to their advantage right before they pull the rug out from under us. Experiment with using ambient soundscapes to create an unsettling feel, and create melodies that compliment or contrast the ambiance. Pay close attention the low frequencies, as these can be powerful tools in conveying a foreboding entity, but can lead to muddy low end (arguably the scariest thing in this article).
Music theory techniques to chill listeners to the bone
One incredible thing about horror is that it welcomes dissonant musical passages. Dissonance, which is the lack of harmony between notes or chords, is a key element in creating tension in a horror soundtrack. In particular, using the minor second (an interval of one semitone, or half step) can create an unstable feeling when alternating between it and its fundamental. One of the best-known and most effective examples of the minor second interval in horror is the theme to Jaws, composed by John Williams.
The minor second interval is only the tip of the iceberg—bringing in the chromatic scale to your compositions will convey a shifting, ambiguous feel that creates a sense of unpredictability to the listener.
On its own, the tritone has a distinctively dissonant sound. It can convey an unsettling, suspenseful feeling. Take The Twilight Zone theme song for example:
The melody is simple, and the tritone (E and B♭) strikes a tense atmosphere. Marius Constant, the French-Romanian musician who composed the melody, had it played on an electric guitar and a zither—and it delivers an eerie experience to listeners immediately.
Use modulations and key changes
The theme to Halloween is one of the most legendary themes in the history of horror. John Carpenter allegedly wrote the theme after being inspired by both “Tubular Bells, Pt. 1” from The Exorcist and from Goblin’s Suspiria soundtrack, which came out one year prior to Halloween.
One of the most fascinating parts is that it modulates keys several times, changing from C minor to A minor to F minor to D minor and back to C minor. Repeated key changes can provide a sense of unpredictability for listeners, and coupling this with the 5/4 time signature gives the Halloween theme a dreadful, anxious atmosphere.
“Halloween Theme” and its impact on hip hop
“Halloween Theme” has been sampled countless times since it was released in 1978. Artists like Dr. Dre (in “Murder Ink”) and J Dilla (in “Featuring Phat Kat”) have sampled it, but DJ Paul from Three 6 Mafia was a prolific user of this sample. It can be found throughout many of DJ Paul’s production credits, including in “Lolli Lolli (Pop That Body)” (2008), “Pass That Junt” feat. Lord Infamous (1994), and even in an intro of an early mixtape by him and Juicy J in 1993. Three 6 Mafia and other Memphis hip hop artists influenced a new generation of artists to sample horror movies, like Spaceghostpurrp, who sampled “Halloween Theme” in the track “Mystical Maze 2” in 2014.
Three 6 Mafia was influential in bringing horror and hip hop closer together through their hypnotic beats and aggressive lyrics. DJ Paul sampled many other horror themes throughout his discography, including “Tubular Bells, Pt. 1” from The Exorcist in the track “Threesixafix” (1997) and “Main Title” from A Nightmare on Elm Street in the track “Silent Night Interlude” (1994).
A Nightmare On Elm Street also spawned songs like “Nightmare On My Street” by DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince, which further blended horror into the mainstream. This track, which prominently samples Charles Bernstein’s haunting melody from “Main Title,” had no official ties to the movie—but still reached #15 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1988.
Sampling ideas to take your tracks from wicked to hellish
Sample vocal snippets
Although the main theme to A Nightmare on Elm Street perfectly sets the tone for the 1984 slasher, arguably the most important audio snippet to come from this film is the nursery rhyme that begins with “One, two, Freddy’s coming for you.”
The unsettling, playful qualities of this rhyme have struck fear into the hearts of children and grown adults alike, and it has been interpolated in songs such as “X-Is Coming” by DMX, “I Wish You Would” by DJ Khaled, and “Coming For You” by DJ Clue.
Who says vocal samples need to appear human? To take your listeners into even darker depths, check out our article on creating monster sounds.
Use foley and other non-musical sounds
Tonal music, even when incorporating intervals like the tritone or minor second, is still familiar to us. Our brains can easily recognize these sounds and understand their intended purpose without much thought. Atonality is the other side of the coin. Utilizing samples without a clear tonal center or key can unlock new levels of disorientation for listeners.
The score of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) showcases this masterfully. Composers Wayne Bell and Tobe Hooper created something so idiosyncratic for the film’s opening titles that it blurs the lines between music and sound.
Sample or interpolate classic musical themes
Although most of the music that Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind composed for The Shining never saw a proper release, Stanley Kubrick chose their work for the film’s main title music. The massive descending brass melody interpolates the “Dies Irae,” a 13th-century Gregorian chant that has been quoted in musical and literary contexts throughout history. The chilling performance of the “Dies Irae” by the orchestra, the droning Moog tones, and boinging autoharp make for an indelible theme that demonstrates how powerful the right interpolation can be.
Jumpscares aren’t only a visual tool. Auditory jumpscares can grab a listener’s attention like no other sound can. Take this example from “Laura Smile,” the third track from the Smile OST—the loud, repeated stabs starting at 5:58 are repeated into oblivion and disappear by 6:04, but they leave a clear mark in your mind. Coupled with a strategic use of tension and release, you can make your listeners jump onto (or up from) the dance floor.
Create your most spine-tingling track yet
In this article, we’ve only scratched the surface of the songwriting and music production techniques that embody the horror genre. Don’t be afraid to experiment, get inspired by the greats, and create something so terrifying that you can’t help but listen on.
Check out our Collection of 50 killer Halloween samples, comprised of moody synths, atmospheric FX, and terrifying one-shots that will elevate your tracks to shocking new heights:
October 31, 2023