Your Brain on Music

Chills and Thrills: Music That Goes Bump in the Night

Creators of spooky tunes know exactly what they are doing to send shivers down the spines of listeners


In the summer of 1975, moviegoers lined up to get a good scare. Jaws was a runaway hit. But the film did more than freak out people with a rompin’, chompin’ mechanical Great White shark. It also demonstrated the power of scary music. The accelerating musical theme—bah-dump…bah-dump…bah-dump…BAH-DUMP, BAH-DUMP, BAH-DUMP... BAH-DUMP…—warning the shark was closing in for a snack —was enough to make the audience crawl under the seats and cancel the trip to the beach. Listen below and see if you agree:

The theme from Jaws is one example of scary movie music at its horrifying best.

Scary music has a long, bone-chilling history in symphonies, plays, ballets, and operas, as well as movies. Most listeners automatically recognize when music sends clues that something creepy is hiding under the bed, in the basement, or behind the mask. And the creators of spooky tunes know exactly what they are doing to send shivers down the spines of listeners.

“Music contributes a lot to the overall emotional experience of an audience,” says Neil Lerner. Lerner is a professor of music at Davidson College in Davidson, North Carolina, and an expert in horror film music. Music composers and arrangers have a variety of ways to add eeriness, ramp up suspense, or help deliver the shock people love to fear, according to Professor Lerner.

A favorite scary music technique is sound and music that hints a character is being chased. For example, the music may speed up and grow louder to suggest the danger is closing in. “My hunch is that our brains hear that music in terms of being hunted,” suggests Lerner. “Our instincts tell us a creature is upon us and we need to run away or turn and fight.” That was the technique the Jaws theme used to such terrifying effect.

What are other ways composers craft their music to scare us?

Making Scary

The Science of Scary

The amygdala is a small, almond-shaped structure that sits near the base of the brain. Among its main functions is figuring out whether or not a person should be afraid of something. If the answer is YIKES!, the amygdala fires off signals getting the body ready to run or fight.

In 2005, researchers in Oxford, England, used brain scans to test how people’s brains react to scary music. They played different kinds of music for people whose amygdala had been removed because of illness or accident. They found people without this part of the brain had trouble recognizing scary music, while people with their amygdalas had little difficulty. Researchers concluded that the amygdala is what puts the “scare” in scary music.


A heartbeat, ticking clock, footsteps, a galloping horse—these are familiar sounds a composer may echo in the beat of a song. By changing the pace—speeding up the rhythm or slowing it down—the composer sends a signal that can put listeners on the edge of their seats. Accelerating tempo (speed of music) might suggest a chase or the heavy breathing of a frightened character. Slowing down the beat might indicate lurking evil or a fading heartbeat. Using an unsteady beat often hints that something is out of whack or out of control. Bringing back a steady rhythm helps ease the tension.


Refers to how loud or soft notes are played, and how the volume changes during the course of a song. Soft, eerie music can raise suspense by suggesting danger in the distance. Getting louder may hint that something or someone is about to pounce. Listen:


Ever notice how people’s voices often get higher when they feel nervous? Composers may build this behavior into their music, raising tension by having the instruments or voices shift upward in pitch to higher notes. In the art song “The Erlkonig,” for example, composer Franz Schubert has the voice of the young son get higher and higher as a forest spirit pursues him. Listen:


Some musical notes sound good together, creating harmony. Other combinations produce friction, making us wince and feel uncomfortable. An example of a creepy combination is the tritone—a musical chord that can annoy the ears and suggest something is terribly wrong. Long ago, church leaders labeled the tritone “Diabolus in Musica”—“The Devil in Music.” In Saint-Saens' Danse Macabre, Death raises skeletons to a graveyard dance by playing his violin in sinister tritones. Listen:

When composers want to signal that the coast is clear, they will often return to a pleasant-sounding harmony.

Strange Instrumentation

Hearing a strange, unfamiliar sound can stop us in our tracks to listen for trouble. In a similar way, arrangers of scary music will sometimes use unusual instruments or play instruments in unusual ways to give a song freaky weirdness. Composers John Cage and George Crumb wrote music for a specially-prepared piano that might have screws, hair clips, and playing cards attached to the strings so the instrument sounded bizarre. Listen to the two examples in the audio player below:


Bursts of music that deliver a shock. In suspenseful TV shows, they usually blare just before a commercial break. “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” for example, often punctuated a scary scene with screeching violins that sound like a rising scream. Stingers can even be turned on their heads to make us laugh, as in the clip of the “dramatic prairie dog.” Watch and listen:

Playing with Expectations

Want to know when a movie monster is about to attack? Listen for the silence, or a sweet, gentle tune. A music arranger will often try to get the audience to relax before delivering the big “AAARGH!” Another tactic is to increase tension by performing a familiar song in eerie ways, like a baby’s lullaby played out of tune. Listen:



Sean McCollum
Original Writer

Editors & Producers

Lisa Resnick
Content Editor

Kenny Neal
Manager, Digital Education Resources

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