The background score of horror movies, tends to use digital sound effects these days, rather than original sound from instruments like a cello, drum or keyboards.


Music impacts the part of the brain that controls the link between sound, memories and emotion, the medial pre-frontal cortex, says the National Institutes of Health. Listening to music can soothe the emotions. A study published in the December 2009 journal Pediatrics found that premature babies demonstrated an increased rate of weight gain when they were exposed to music by Mozart. The music soothed the babies, reducing their resting energy expenditure. Researchers speculate that the weight gain seen in premature babies who are exposed to Mozart results from this lower energy expenditure.

In May 2006, the Journal of Advanced Nursing reported that people who listen to music experience less pain and lower levels of depression and disability related to pain than those who don't listen to music. This indicates that music can effect the brain by lifting the mood and alleviating the perception of pain.

Source: http://www.livestrong.com/article/156262-the-effects-of-sound-in-the-human-brain/

Thus, if various sounds and their frequencies carry the capacity to inhibit or produce a specific emotion in our brain, does Horror movie JUMP SCARES use this technique to make sure we DO get scared, even if the plot, acting and other factors have a fair chance of failing?

In the early days of film and radio, foley artists would add sounds in realtime or pre-recorded sound effects would be played back from analogue discs in realtime (while watching the picture). Today, with effects held in digital format, it is easy to create any required sequence to be played in any desired timeline.

In the days of silent film, sound effects were added by the operator of a theater organ or photoplayer, both of which also supplied the soundtrack of the film. Theater organ sound effects are usually electric or electro-pneumatic, and activated by a button pressed with the hand or foot. Photoplayer operators activate sound effects either by flipping switches on the machine or pulling "cow-tail" pull-strings, which hang above. Sounds like bells and drums are made mechanically, sirens and horns electronically. Due to its smaller size, a photoplayer usually has less special effects than a theater organ, or less complex ones.

Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sound_effect#Film

  • My question here is: Do they use this fact while creating the effects, so that the frequencies create a sense of horror in our mind, even if the acting or the plot falls short? Mar 3, 2017 at 16:10
  • its not about "conveying" emotions, its about forcefully creating it through certain frequencies which would incite fear in us. Mar 3, 2017 at 16:23

2 Answers 2


Rather than specific frequencies it is more about musical intervals. It is pretty well accepted that specific chords and scales have associations with particular emotions for example music in a minor key is usually perceived as being somewhat darker than a major key. In fact there are various videos about on Youtube etc with well known songs transposed from a major to a minor key where you can hear the difference very distinctly.

Similarity dissonance or slightly out of tune notes can be used to create a sense of unease in the listener. And here I am providing a very brief summary of a huge area of musical theory.

Having said that the technology of the sound projection can have a big effect, especially in terms of powerful bass frequencies. Indeed for things like explosions this can be as much a tactile effect as soundtrack, ie you can feel your seat vibrating.

There are also more complex compositional tricks which can be used. For example a melody typically has a 'root' not or chord and the subsequent notes in a melody are processed in relation to that root. In very general terms returning to that note or its octave produce a sense of resolution or to put it another way a particular series of notes sets up a sense of expectation and by breaking that pattern or delaying its resolution you can create a sense of tension or expectation as your brain is expecting a conclusion to a pattern whcih never arrives.

Similarly the tone of the sound itself can create an emotional effect. Most musical instruments, even when they play a single note don't produce a pure frequency but rather a whole series of harmonics or which the fundamental note is just the most dominant and different instruments and playing styles will produce different 'textures' to the sound even when they are playing nominally the same note.

Traditional instruments which create sound by directly vibrating the air via strings, reeds etc tend to produce quite a well rounded sound with a fairly balanced range of harmonics which are, more or less, pure sine waves. In purely electronic instruments it is possible to generate very specific wave forms and for example, square or saw-tooth waves sound very different from sine waves and a pure saw-tooth or square wave can sound quite harsh and jarring.

Bladerunner in particular is notable for having a score which has an overtly syth sound but a symphonic approach to composition and structure.

There is also an important difference between using digital recording and editing technology and digitally generated sound. For example the LOTR score has a fairly traditional style in terms of composition and instrumentation ie recording an entire live orchestra in a studio but was recorded and edited digitally and the film also made extensive use of digital editing and compositing for specific sound effects as well as fairly extensive Foley recording.

There is a huge amount more which could be written about this and I am by no means an expert on the subject but the short answer is broadly yes the score of a horror (or indeed any) movie is intended to heighten the emotional content and there are fairly well documented academic principals which apply as well as more subjective creative elements. It is debatable how much this is cultural and how much it is an inherent human response to music but it is definitely a real effect.

There is also potential for debate on how artistically valid it is to use overly heavy handed musical composition in cinema as in some cases it can be argued that it is a crude way to make up for shortcomings in the rest of the production and relying too heavily on a score for emotional context can take away from subtly and ambiguity and be seen as telling the audience what they should feel.

Equally, as with all art forms simple and effective techniques can quickly become cliched if applied too often and without thought, not that the horror genre is necessarily afraid of cliche.

One very current example is the use of BIG horn chords and Epic Chord Progressions which have now become ubiquitous in blockbuster movies.


In addition to Chris Johns' excellent answer about music, I want to mention Marilyn Manson, who composed part of the score for Resident Evil. In a behind-the-scenes documentary on the DVD, he said that he had discovered/created some electronic sounds that made him a bit nauseous. He figured that if they had that effect on him, they would probably have that effect on other people, so he included them in the score. He also said that because of that, his music started to become more "sound design" than music.

I don't know whether other composers have done the same thing.


I remembered hearing that for The Exorcist, the sound designer recorded the sounds of pigs dying in a slaughterhouse, and also put microphones by a hornet's nest and then (from a distance) shot it to record their furious buzzing. Those sounds would definitely elicit emotions!

  • 1
    Thanks. :) If you have a chance to see the behind-the-scenes features from the first Resident Evil movie, you'll hear some really fascinating information about how Marilyn Manson approached the scoring process. It was his first movie scoring gig, and he shared the responsibility with another composer (whose name I can't remember right now). Maybe the behind-the-scenes featurette is on YouTube? Mar 3, 2017 at 17:51
  • I found the link: youtube.com/watch?v=fuONHShocss . It's been years and years since I watched it. Mar 3, 2017 at 17:53
  • It's a great point that a 'soundscape' type of approach to film sound is different again to a more traditional score plus sound effects approach. Mar 3, 2017 at 20:40
  • @ChrisJohns Really good point! I hadn't thought of that distinction before. I'm a composer myself and definitely appreciate an impactful score, but I also love doing Foley and blending sound effects into music. Mar 3, 2017 at 21:01

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