Spooky Music – How music theory and human pyschology combine to create moods of music

This Is Your Brain On Music book coverSo what is it about certain songs that makes all of us get the creeps?

That was the question posed on the Science Friday segment “Behind the Monster Music: Why Some Tunes Scare Us.”

I immediately recognized one of the prime examples used – the music from the famous shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s movie “Psycho”. You probably know that music. Many violins screeching; a fast tempo.

Scary music was an appropriate topic for a Halloween radio show, with host Ira Flatow interviewed neuroscientist Daniel Levitin from McGill University, whose recent book is “This Is Your Brain on Music,” and music critic Jim DeRogatis.

Not that I want to make scary or unsettling music – quite the opposite. But I was interested in what qualities in music can create that feeling of anxiety. And I was particularly interested in what Daniel Levitin would have to say because I’ve started reading his book.

Levitin discussed the research he is doing to determine if some music is universally judged the same – whether scary or happy – by people from different cultures and different ages.

Levitin said that he and his colleagues “have played thousands of pieces to thousands of people in our laboratory” to test responses to different kinds of music.

Songs that create anxiety, Levitin said, can use primal drum beating or accelerating tempo. Another way to create anxiety is to use “chords that are unresolved,” like minor seconds, used in the Psycho shower music.

In doing some additional reading about the Psycho soundtrack, I found that composer Bernard Herrmann changed his approach to the movie’s music because of the lowered music budget that Hitchcock provided. Instead of writing for a full orchestra, Herrmann composed for string orchestra.

When the movie debuted in 1960, some thought that the shower scene music was created by using electronic effects. In fact, the music was created using only violins and by placing microphones close to the instruments to get a harsher sound. Interestingly, in his directions to Herrmann for creating the soundtrack, Hitchcock told Herrmann not to score the shower scene. Herrmann wrote the music and played it for Hitchcock, who included the music in the scene.