As Halloween approaches this year we’ll all be surrounded by spooky tunes, haunted melodies and scary soundtracks. As a musician you might find yourself wondering: what makes that music so Halloween-y?
Wonder no more! Whether you’re a budding song-writer or film composer, want to improvise some suitably scary sounds during October, or just wish you understood why the music you hear does (or doesn’t) sound like a horror show, here are 5 tried-and-tested ways to add some spook to music.
1. Start with a Minor key
It’s probably the best-known ingredient for a spooky music track: being in a minor key.
Choosing a minor key means focusing on minor chords and minor scales, both of which have a particular musical character to their sound. It can vary a lot by context but when used in the right way these musical elements give the composer easy access to unnerving and unsettling sounds.
Minor keys are not always scary. Sometimes they just create a sad or melancholy mood. It’s up to the composer to decide how heavily to lean on their “spooky” aspects.
Using a minor key is a solid start for a spooky sound.
2. Create discord
… and release.
Some composers and song-writers would tell you that creating and releasing tension is what music is all about.
The most striking way to create tension in the listener’s ear is with discord. Sounds which are dissonant, meaning they sound uncomfortable, unresolved, not quite right.
By choosing the right chords and melody notes you can create dissonant sounds and then release the tension they create with some more consonant sounds. It’s up to you whether to maintain a heavy discord throughout your track, which would sense of anxiety and tension in the listener – perfect for soundtracking a haunted house or a horror movie. Or you might choose to have a relaxed-yet-spooky piece which only uses discord at certain key moments to build up to a climax and then release it again.
3. Add some spooky sound effects
One common hallmark of Halloween music is that it makes use of sound effects as well as musical notes. That creaking door, the howling wind, a THUD or CRASH at a vital moment. It’s a surefire way to set the right mood with your music.
You can use sound effects from a library or even create your own spooky sounds. The key is in knowing how much to use them and which ones to place when to conjure up just the right Halloween scene in the listener’s imagination.
4. Add a surprise or two
As you write in your minor key, create and release tension, and sprinkle in some scary sounds, you want to make sure that once in a while you…. SURPRISE your listener!
There are many ways to create dramatic or surprising moments when writing music. The general principle is to create expectations in the listener by establishing consistency, and then when they’ve settled in, suddenly change it up and surprise them by breaking the rules you’ve just established.
If you want a memorable Halloween track, make sure it’s not entirely predictable: seek out opportunities to create drama and surprise!
5. Learn from the pros
Ultimately there are a variety of ways you can make your music spooky for Halloween. Some are subtle, others are like a sledgehammer. The best way to learn new techniques for adding that scary flair and also develop your taste for the right balance to strike is to learn from the masters.
- Pro horror composer Sam Haynes shares his horror soundtrack secrets
- Award-winning composer Sabrina Peña Young teaches how to score Halloween horror
- Many other famous composers can provide you with scary music writing tips too
As a song-writer or composer there’s a wide range of tools and techniques at your disposal for creating scary-sounding music. Explore and learn, train your ears, and listen carefully whenever you hear a great example of Halloween music.
Then, when it comes time to write music of your own choose wisely which elements to use in which amounts and you’ll be able to craft anything from a simple, gently-spooky background track to a powerful dramatic theme for the latest Hollywood horror hit.
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