What Is the Purpose of Soundtracks in Horror Films?

Published: 2021-07-01
2059 words
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University of California, Santa Barbara
Type of paper: 
Dissertation proposal
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Can horror movies be able to maintain the emotional effect (fear) that they have on their audiences if they do not have the background noise or soundtrack that is normally used?


When an individual is watching a movie, the different sounds and music that are played throughout the film, help build the right environment that the producers of the movie intended for during its creation. It ensures that the audience or the viewers can connect and maintain an emotional connection to the movie (Bell, 2010). If the viewer were to turn off the music while playing the movie, then he or she will fail to experience the atmosphere or the expected emotion in that film.

Looking at horror films, music plays an important role when it comes to creating the ideal environment for the viewers to invoke fear. The soundtracks that are used in these films provide the audiovisual connection for the movie. They help regarding building a certain feeling that contributes to the overall success of the film (Buchanan, 1974). For the viewer when the soundtrack begins to play, it acts as a highlight for specific parts of the movie, which are meant to stand out from the rest. For instance, in a horror film that involves a serial killer who attacks people while they are showering, as he approaches the bathroom while a person is showering, the soundtrack will begin to play, creating the tension required before the attack. Although the audience knows what is going to happen, the tension is built by the background music that is being played.

The music that is played is also able to show the viewer or describe the intensity of the act, which is taking place at that particular moment in the movie. For instance, the music that is playing can describe the fear in a certain scene of the movie. In addition to that; the use of violins and pianos in films create a breathtaking and unforgettable moment for the viewer (Cooke, 2008). For instance, in the movie Jaws, the scene where a woman is swimming by herself in the ocean before being attacked by the Shark is considered to be breathtaking due to the background music that is being played. It creates an unforgettable moment in the film for the viewer and every time for the rest of the movie when the viewer hears that sound, he or she knows that there is an incoming shark attack.

When the directors are creating a movie, there are important considerations that need to be implemented for him or her help the viewers or audience, experience the vision that he or she had when developing the film. Of course, the visual components of a film play an integral role when it comes to filmmaking (Derbyshire, 2010). The images and scenes that are used throughout the film help an individual to be able to see the way the story is unfolding as the movie develops its plot about its theme.

Another important aspect that is taken into consideration during cinema creation is the aspect of sound. The way different audible elements are used in a film can change the way the audiences respond to the story that is being provided in the film. Also, another important aspect besides sound that when incorporated in a movie brings out the needed reaction from the viewers is the use of silence (Electronic resource collection), & University of Texas at Arlington, 2009). In some instances or various scenes during movie creation, the element of silence is used because of its ability to portray the desired effect for the viewers. It is important to point out that is included in the films is just as important as what is left out in these films. In this respect, the use of sound and the absence of sound can be able to create tension, and project the right emotional impact about a certain scene in a film. However, it is also important to point out that in various films such as Psycho, the use of soundtracks helped regarding achieving the desired effect that the filmmakers were looking for in that film. The screeching violin during the shower scene is a good example of how sound plays an important role in the creation of a film.

One may wonder, what it takes to design or produce a great soundtrack that can be used in horror films. As was pointed out earlier, horror films are meant to create fear to the audience that is watching the film (Haines, 2014). Therefore, the music that is used needs to be scary to achieve that effect. A great example is Hermanns Hitchcock soundtrack in the movie Psycho. He used sleek and highly strung violin sounds that produce what can be termed as a slashing sound. It has been designed in such a manner that it sought of shreds the nerves of the listener every time that he or she listens to that sound.

An important factor to point out is that during the development of a horrifying sound track, which will be ideal for horror movies, there is a science that is used. According to Professor Daniel Blumstein of the University of California, Los Angeles, he states that non-linear sounds are the ones that are used. The reason for this is that; they can achieve the desired effect of tapping into the primal fears of the audience that is listening to these soundtracks (Hayward, 2009). These non-linear sounds such as the ones that have been used in the movie Psycho, normally mimic the sounds of animals that are under duress. The effect that these sounds have such as an animal screaming when it has been attacked by a predator will trigger a sense of fear in a person who is listening to that sound. Take for instance, when an animal is being slaughtered, it releases sounds that can make an individual cringe. To put it in perspective, it is not a sound that an individual would like to hear often because; he or she associates that sound with fear. In this case, things will normally feel harsh and unfamiliar in that scenario, and it is bound to affect the listener from an emotional point of view. Professor Blumstein states the following about the creation of these soundtracks; Everybody has the same basic fear response, regardless of culture; the interesting thing is how you can trigger it in different audiences (Stewart, 2013).

During the creation of these soundtracks, it is also important to perfectly time the time when to insert silence. The reason for this is that during that period of silence, the viewer can fill the gaps about what he or she is watching, and it helps in building the tension that will help him or her become scared once a horrifying scene is brought up on the screen (Benshoff, 2017). If the sound is scary from the starting point to the end without strategic silence periods, the viewers will get used to the sounds, and they will not be scared of the sounds because there will be a lack of surprise.

Literature Review

Sound in Films

In movies, when talking about the term sound,' it refers to everything that is audible in that film. This means that the words, sound effects that have been used and even music are categorized as sound in the film. The purpose as to why the sound is used in a film is so that it can help the viewer have more information about a certain scene that he or she is watching, and heightens the mood of the film (In Lange, In Davison, & Goh, 2015). It is important to point out that in a film; two types of sounds are normally used: diegetic and non-diegetic sounds. Diegetic sound is defined as any audio element that is present on the screen whose source is within the films world. A good example of diegetic sound is footsteps when one of the characters in the film is moving from point A to B. On the other hand; non-diegetic sound refers to the audio elements that are from without the fictional world of the screen. It includes things such as sound effects that may arise from things such as sounds that are used to enhance the dramatic effect of the film or even the narrators commentary (Jensen, 2013). In horror films, these two types of sounds are normally used to create the emotion that is needed to ensure that the audience will be on edge or will be afraid.

The sound effects that are used in a film are meant to change the mood of a certain scene in the movie. They are not monotonous, and in various cases, the pitch and the tempo of the sound will be altered to make the audience react in a certain manner. A point to note is that the audiences in the film react to the events that are being portrayed in the movie (Kehrein, 2002). Therefore, in a horror film, a high-pitched sound such as a scream is meant to create a sense of anxiety or fear from the viewer.

Most of the directors know how to use sound effects. For instance, to create the dramatization required, they may decide to include a scene in a movie that is silent. The silence in that scene normally will create tension for the viewers because they realize that there is impending doom that will befall the character(s) who is at that scene. In most cases, the silent scene is disrupted by a scream or other sound effects.

How Music Helps Determine the Mood of the Film

Music is part of movies, and it plays an important role in determining the mood of the movie because of its effects in that movie. The first role that music or the soundtrack of the movie plays is acting as a guide regarding creating a certain emotional response from the viewers. In this case, they act as reaction maps for the audience about how the producer wanted them to react when he or she was creating a certain scene in the movie (Kehrein, 2002. As has been shown in this paper, music is used as foreshadow for the upcoming events in the film. In horror films in particular as has been demonstrated before, the music is used to create tension and even suspense.

Composition of Horror Music

Horror music is a fascinating genre that has been misunderstood by most people mainly because of the way it has been designed. It is characterized by unsubtle dynamics, dissonant melodies, and even tired cliches (Kehrein, 2002). However, looking at horror music from a composers viewpoint it is an interesting, while at the same time a challenging concept to producing horror music that will provide the desired effect, which is the creation of tension and fear.

The challenging aspect that is seen during the composition of horror music is characterized by the different instruments that are used, harmonies, melodies and even structures, which are different from the ones that are used in conventional music. However, what most people fail to understand is that horror music is not supposed to sound normal. Conventional music is supposed to be for entertainment purposes; people enjoy listening to it that is why in most cases, people sing along and dance to the music (Lerner, 2008). On the other hand, horror music is supposed to instill fear, and that is the reason it defies most of the rules that are used during the standard process of music production.

Horror music is also considered to be different based on two things: the instruments that are used during its production and also the musical concepts or ideas. Symphonic and classical instruments characterize horror music or soundtracks. It is quite common to hear sounds that were composed of the pipe organ or cello mainly because these sounds are normally associated with evil things such as zombies, vampires, and ghosts (Melton & Hornick, 2015). Composers use both the esoteric such as the theremin and symphony, together with the innocent instruments such as pianos and music box to compose these horror soundtracks.

The horror soundtracks normally ascribe to the concept that is used in heavy metal as the music is associated with evil themes. In heavy metal videos, there are normally a lot of disruptions such as blood spills, and other violent scenes. It seems to go in-line with a...

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