Music is such an important tool for filmmakers and storytellers alike. It guides you along in a scene or sets the mood. It can be just as much of a character as the people you see on screen.
But what is the purpose of music in a horror film? Why do we need music, and what does it do to our audience? How does it make them feel? Better yet, how does it make you feel?
The purpose of music in film is far greater than simply filling in the audio void of nothingness. You don’t add music without thought. It holds a purpose. Music can establish setting, atmosphere, and tone, and it can heighten moments or build up to something greater.
Music is on par with cinematography for the one reason that it’s there to serve the story. It’s a dance. Perhaps the camera swerves in a certain way, influenced by the score, or perhaps a bomb goes off and the song explodes into action. Here’s an example.
When I edited my first film, Face Your Fears, I wanted to build up to the midpoint because this is where everything I established and set up comes into place. This is where I connect the dots for the first time, and I wanted it to feel like a big moment.
The scene follows the protagonist as he’s in his room, calmly sketching birds and enjoying the silence. The score reflects this, with subtle atmospheric synthesizer jingles. What it does is contain the scene by telling the audience how to feel, which is to be calm and silent.
Then, the protagonist's pet dog runs around upstairs, and a monster chases after it. We don’t see any of this, but we hear it. We hear it in crystal clear clarity, and the protagonist simply listens. During this, I built up to the chase, and when the dog was caught -- CRUNCH! His neck is snapped, and a deep bellowing violin pierces our hearts. I wanted this heart crushing sound to partner up with the crunch of the innocent animal.
But I set all this up, and I finally built up to the big moment… right? No, I went further with it. I wanted the audience to soak in that feeling of dread and helplessness. Did I kick it in with action and intense build-ups? No. Instead, I left them with silence, specifically 15 seconds of watching the protagonist react and we, the audience, slowly realizing that the dog is dead. I also wanted this scene to be more than that. The protagonist calls out for his pet multiple times. This catches the attention of the monster, who we hear running down the hallway and towards the base, towards our protagonist.
What does this do? It takes what we set up and ramps it up even further. As we listen to the monster, we also listen to the music build up. The protagonist realizes the basement door can be closed and locked, and it becomes a race.
SIn iconic horror films such as Halloween, the score must reflect the tone of the scene and follow the lead of the camera, the story, and the characters. It brings out the most in a scene you’ve developed. The next time you watch your favorite horror film, listen to how the score is reacting to the scene. Then, listen to it again and watch to see if it changes regarding any action or movement in a scene.
But Troy, how can I decide what to use in my film? A big part of being an artist and storyteller is being exposed to as much good and bad content as you can so you can realize what you’re drawn to. For me, I often listen to Spotify playlists of atmospheric, intense, and typically metal based soundtracks. I’m a big fan of gritty, high energy, and dramatic music. Why? Because it heightens what I’m trying to develop and pushes forward the story.
The next time you watch a movie, even outside of horror, listen to the soundtrack and study how it changes and morphs throughout the film.
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