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EXTRA! Composing Scary Music

Sunday Morning / Jane Pauley
The Truth Network Radio
October 27, 2019 1:00 pm

EXTRA! Composing Scary Music

Sunday Morning / Jane Pauley

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October 27, 2019 1:00 pm

David Pogue's extended "CBS Sunday Morning" interview with composers and scientists about how they create scary music for films like "The Shining" and "Get Out."

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Let's partner for all of it. Learn more at Hi, I'm Jane Pauley and this is Sunday Morning Extra, our podcast featuring a memorable story from our most recent show. It's a conversation that offers insight beyond the broadcast. On this episode, and just in time for Halloween, the science of scary music. For movie composers, just a few notes can go a long way to create that creepy sound, but how and why? For answers, David Pogue spoke to Michelle DeBucci, a composer and music theory professor at New York's Juilliard School. Michelle, tell me some of the tricks of the trade that you guys use to unsettle us.

What's an ins and dissonance? Consonants are different notes when they sound together. We find them very soothing.

Happy. Use your chords. And then there's other notes when played together, make us very unsettled. Could you not?

Right? So composers know you're going to be unsettled if we play certain intervals. And the interval that composers love to use is the tritone, often called the devil's horn.

And I think because you can fit it right in between those two fingers. Yeah, that's not a pretty sound. And it's tense, right? It wants to go somewhere. It wants to go there. Ah, that's consonant. Or see, it's tense. It's tense. It wants to go there.

That feels good. But when I'm sitting there, that tritone has me very unsettled. And for that reason, it was not allowed to be used in church music. They wouldn't let you use. No, they wouldn't. It was stirring up too many feelings in your body.

Wow. So keep that interval out of the church. And it was called diabolus in musica, the devil in music. So that further, that's probably where the devil horn name came for it. And composers avoided that interval, oh, in Western culture probably until the 17th century.

So how does that affect horror movies, though? I mean, do they use that? Well, they use that interval because they know you're unsettled when you hear it. Yeah.

So if I'm going to play that interval, you want resolution. Are there any famous ones that use that? Does the Exorcist use that?

No, the Exorcist is more connected to chant. Oh, okay. You mentioned that the constant chords, the major chords, are happy. So we're not going to hear probably a lot of that in tense scenes. Are you saying that the minor one, yeah, I play piano, that the minor chord is not so happy? The minor chord tends to, it's a tighter chord. It does make us feel maybe more melancholy.

It brings up, it's a different color for us, a different shade. And so minor chords are used a lot, but nothing is quite as effective as dissonance. And when those notes get really close together, they bother us. And we want to, we either want them to stop or we want them to resolve.

I feel better now. So composers use dissonance and resolution to manipulate you. And with major and minor, I've seen things on YouTube where people deliberately change from major to minor on famous songs just to prove the effects.

You know, if you have twinkle twinkle little star in minor, I mean, it's a little bit of a different. I mean, it's inherently scarier and sadder. It is. It's certainly sadder.

Yeah. So minor is the sadder key or mode. And I think that it's about context. So it can certainly become scary. Minor can become scary, but dissonance. Dissonance is it?

Or sometimes nothingness. Like where's that note going? What's it going to do? Why is it there? It's literally suspense.

We're suspended. So sometimes very little does a lot. And knowing how to use all of these effects. And I noticed that you did that low. Low also the register has something to do with how we react. Whereas in Psycho, it's the high that scares us. So that dissonance and it's in the stratosphere register of the violins really high. And that's why it has such a big effect on us.

Also what we're watching. Yeah. Oh yeah.

That's right. So, but you're playing it on the piano. Does it make a difference what instrument is playing it?

Absolutely. So I mean, that may sound unsettling to us, but the color, the timbre of the violin is so different. Just the bow on strings that I think it's, yes, the choice of instrument is very important.

Wow. Sometimes the piano is effective in horror scores, but at that moment it has to be the string orchestra. Now you mentioned this drone, this long low suspended thing. Long low strings is also, isn't that the key to Jaws?

Absolutely. But the low is not only makes that ominous, but it's from the depths of the ocean that the monster is coming. So that low sound reinforces that something's below and coming up.

It's so genius. There's so little to it. There's not even, there's not even really a chord to it. It's just subtle notes. Little tiny motive. Yes.

Wow. And speaking of motives or musical themes, tell me about the Dies Irae. The Dies Irae from the funeral mass.

We find most of our music from the masses and from Gregorian chant and the mass for the dead or the funeral mass would have a section that used a sequence called the Dies Irae. Dies Irae, Dies Ila, a day of wrath, day of impending doom. And this was the judgment day. This was when it was decided if you were going to heaven or hell.

And so that was just a scary concept back in the middle ages. And this theme, this theme descends. It brings about minor.

It's for us. So there's something solemn about it. It's a cascading musical idea.

It falls down. And because it's associated with death, with doom, with judgment, it started to be used by composers outside of its reference to the mass. So it was this composer Berlioz, Hector Berlioz, who pulled this melody out of the requiem mass and he put it in a piece where that theme represented a witch's dance. And as soon as he did that, the die was cast and we have used the Dies Irae theme countless times in classical music, in film music and in pop music to mean something's not good. So are there some movies that have used that?

Yes. The first I think a little bit in Citizen Kane, a little in Jimmy Stewart, It's a Wonderful Life. The famous opening of The Shining is all about the Dies Irae.

And even if you think of the opening of The Exorcist, The Exorcist, it's sort of inside. Oh yeah. Wow.

And they're all stealing something that's a thousand years old. Yeah. They're borrowing it, right?

They're paying, oh my. Yeah. Wow. Have you ever used that?

I've used the text in my film score for Creepshow. You did? I did. Oh my gosh. Somebody's singing it or chanting it?

Chanting it. Really? Yes.

Wow. So all composers have pulled from, I would think in a long career at one point you've pulled from the Dies Irae. Now is that because we as an audience somehow know that association with the dead and the witches and all that? Or is it just you film composers winking to you each other and saying, see what I did there? I don't think that people know that it's from The Mass of the Dead.

I don't know if they think it's something old from the Middle Ages. I think that it becomes through association. There are countless horror movies that have this theme in it. And I believe over a lifetime of movie watching, the brain is going to know when those collections of notes come in, it does not mean something happy is about to happen.

That is wild. So we've been sort of cultured to know that that's scary. And also it's a Latin chant. I mean, for some reason I associate rights and satanic rituals and movies with Latin. We don't understand what they're saying.

I'm sure the church isn't happy about that. But I mean, Rosemary's Baby, they're chanting in Latin and so many climactic scenes where there's this ceremony and they're all, I mean, eyes wide shut. They're all wearing costumes or masks and chanting in Latin. Well, the mystery of language, the mystery and power of music accompanying that, that's very powerful stuff. And the idea of a club of people doing it, a boys' club doing it, it starts to get scarier and scarier if you're thinking Eyes Wide Shut or other movies like that. So yeah, it has a haunting quality to it. We think of that sound as enhanced all the time too, because we've heard it in churches, which has a natural reverberation. So if I go, D-S-E-Re, D-S-E-La, it's not as scary as if I do that in a church where there's all this reverberation in the space. And so my voice is fuller and more resonant. And so that effect makes it more haunting as well. Yeah.

You know, we're doing all of our examples on the keys here, but sometimes you hear sounds that are not like musical instrument sounds. You know, there's this thing where you... I mean, that's scary. That sure is, and that's used all the time. Oh my gosh! Terry, keep your foot down. You just wrote a horror score.

Oh yes. Why is that upsetting me? Because it's so dissonant and the color is unique for you. It sounds wrong.

It sounds like this is something that's going to hurt you. Oh, but no, it's fabulous. We could have lots of fun creating a score right inside the piano. We've been playing piano wrong all this time.

We haven't been playing it fully. Oh, what did you do? You just like plucked one of these? It's best if you have a necklace or some kind of chain, even if I put my... Here, want to use my Fitbit? Let's see what it does.

It's got some hard middle. Put this on it. So the DSA DeRay... Oh, it's so... Becomes even scarier. You see how much fun this is? So this is what you'll do. You've got the video playing. You're like, what can I put in here?

Sure. A little bit of this, a little of that, what works. It's like being a chef.

What do we add in when we take out not too much spice? Wow. Oh my gosh. Imagine if the lights were low and even if it were a camera on an empty room and you did this.

One of my faves actually, which I use, is you put your hand on the string. Yeah. It almost sounds like law and order, right? Yeah. Wow. All kinds of wonderful percussive effects. And what's happening there? You're stopping it from ringing? Yeah, I'm dampening the string, but I have the sustain on. So when the hammer strikes it, it makes that wonderful sound. Does it work on the middle of the high notes?

It's not as effective here. You need all those overtones. Wait, keep your... I mean, it sounds like bones or something. We put the microphone inside there.

Oh yeah, we can create lots of cool bone-like. Cool. Have you done that?

Of course. Yeah, so I use the inside of the piano a lot. Oh, really? Oh, piano tuners and sometimes pianists don't like going inside and it can make the piano go out of tune.

Well, it's not like we're... I mean, John Cage puts bowls inside the piano. Bowls? Oh, yeah. I mean, prepared piano. He prepared the piano all kinds of ways.

Oh, wow. So I take a piece of paper and I put it in there. And then... It's not as effective as I wanted it to be, but anything that you put on the piano is going to start changing it. The best is a long chain.

A long chain, you start to get a harpsichord type sound. So that's Rosemary's Baby. And one thing that's wrong with it is it's a lullaby in a minor key. So already you're messing with it. And also you're doing some... I mean, you're doing some dissonant stuff. In the second phrase... Yeah, right there. There we go.

It's a stark integral. Yeah, so another... I mean, we get a dissonance in there.

Yeah. But I think it's the simplicity of this, that it's a human voice singing the melody. So this whispery quality in her voice.

Yeah, it's Mia Farrow, right? And she's right up against the mic, really... Like this breathy, tremulous thing. It's creepy. So creepy lullaby. I mean, no one's going to be singing that to their baby.

Not unless they want a big therapy bill in 20 years. So the human voice on that, the simplicity of it, the breathiness, the intimacy of it. We've got this big film that's unfolding, but you've got this very intimate soundtrack, and that's really haunting.

But see, that's really genius for the composer to think that way. Like if I were a newbie writing a horror score, I would think loud and crashy and dissonant and bass and low. I wouldn't think soft and sweet and pretty and breathy. And breathy. Well, you need contrast.

If everything is loud and big and bold, then loud and big and bold isn't loud and big and bold. So I think that the composer knew that it was going to get pretty dark with chanting and more dissonant aspects later on. And this was a moment for this intimacy. And we're invited into this film right from the start with this creepy lullaby.

I think we perceive it creepy from the beginning because of the quality of her voice. Yeah. I mean, I can't think of a lullaby that's in a minor key with the clashing notes like that.

I think there are lullabies in minor keys. It's just we associate this with Rosemary's Baby. Yeah. That's right. Awesome. Hi, podcast peeps. It's me, Drew Barrymore.

Oh my goodness. I want to tell you about our new show. It's the Drew's News Podcast. And in each episode, me and a weekly guest are going to cover all the quirky, fun, inspiring and informative stories that exist out in the world because, well, I need it.

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Whisper: medium.en / 2023-01-28 00:34:28 / 2023-01-28 00:41:20 / 7

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