How to write horror music

By Wil Forbis
email: forbis the mighty at hot mail dot com (remove spaces etc.)

Folks, if you're looking for royalty free music for videos, presentations, games etc, check out my Pond5 Music collection. (Or just go there to hear cool tunes.)

Recently I decided to stretch my creative muscles and write a musical composition in the style of the great horror themes of cinema such as John Carpenter's "Halloween" or Charles Bernstein's "Nightmare on Elm Street." This turned out to be a very enjoyable exercise from which I learned quite a lot. Thus educated, I decided to collect my observations on the process into this article.

First, because I will refer to it throughout the article, let me present my horror theme: "Chamber of Severed Heads."

Horror music is an interesting genre. Though it's quite prominently used in film, television and video games, you don't see a lot of discussion or analysis of its composition. In many quarters, horror music is even maligned, lambasted as a genre of unsubtle dynamics, dissonant melodies and tired clichés. And --- when one is talking about the mediocrities of the genre --- these charges are doubtless true. But during horror music's best moments (say, the work of Bernard Herrmann or Goblin), it can reach the heights of any other style of music.

From a composer's viewpoint, there's an undeniable challenge to writing horror music. Since so many of the instruments, harmonies, melodies and structures used in horror stand apart from those used in "conventional" music, writing in the style gives one a chance to try new things and break out of the box. Horror music, almost by definition, should not sound normal; it should defy many of the rules followed in standard musicmaking.

I considered a number of ideas and concepts while writing my horror theme. I've grouped these into two sections: 1) Instrumental Ideas and 2) Musical Ideas.

1) Instrumental Ideas in Horror Music

Obviously the instruments utilized in a piece of horror music have a lot of impact. Certain instruments --- especially deep, sonorous instruments such as the pipe organ* or cello --- are often used by horror composers. (Indeed, one could argue they've become predictable.) Symphonic and classical instruments and choral voices are hallmarks of horror soundtracks; perhaps they ascribe a timeless nature to the monstrous evil which is causing zombies to rise from the earth or vampires to hunger for virgin blood.

* One book in the fictional teen detective series "The Three Investigators" described a feeling of slowly building dread that could be instilled in humans by playing extremely low notes on a pipe organ. The notes were too low to hear, but could play havoc with the human nervous system. (I'm dubious about the concept, but it's fun to think about.)

Classical and symphonic sounds notwithstanding, exotic or fringe instruments also have their place in horror. The wavering theremin, almost upon its invention, became synonymous with either eerie science-fiction monsters or ectoplasmic ghosts shimmering in the darkness. Less used instrument like the musical saw or wood blocks can find a home in a horror score. If you're composing your music on a keyboard synthesizer, now is a good time to explore the less utilized tones and patches in your collection.

One interesting idea is to contrast an esoteric instrument (such as the theremin) against a more traditional collection of instruments such as a symphony or chamber group. The foreign, oddball nature of the this arrangement helps instill a sense of "something's not right here" that's idiomatic of horror.

Interestingly, seemingly "innocent" instruments, such as a piano played in the high register, or a music box, are horror staples. Often a childlike melody is played on these instruments and is then contrasted against a symphonic pad or drone which might be in a different key, causing dissonance.

In the realm of modern music, heavy metal is the genre with the strongest connection to horror themes such as demons, serial killers and unfathomable evil. Therefore heavy metal instrumentation can be borrowed for ominous effect. Heavily distorted guitars --- either knocking out low-end power chords or blistering guitar solos --- are often featured on horror soundtracks. The pounding, relentless beats of heavy metal drums also can symbolize a kind of unapologetic onslaught of evil. Sounds borrowed from heavy metal's distant cousin, Industrial music, are also appropriate. Industrial music, with its precise, mechanistic beats and anti-organic synthesizer tones, strives to minimize, if not remove, the human element from music*, and thus is a perfect representation of the cold, pityless forms of evil that populate horror cinema.

*I understand that this is a somewhat controversial synopsis of Industrial music and I realize that the genre possesses much more complexity and nuance. (Many would argue the genre is a very humanistic cry of anguish.) But, for a surface analysis of the style, especially as it relates to horror music composition, I think this description is accurate enough.

Sound design, which can be thought of as the art of making music with sounds not normally considered musical (say, the crash of breaking glass, or the low roar of wind blowing throughout the hills) can be very effective in horror music composition. To utilize such sounds, you need to either generate (and record) them yourself, or buy sound libraries with the appropriate content. Applying sound as an overlay to a music piece is a delicate art. You should keep in mind the natural ebb and flow of the dynamics of the piece and apply denser layers of sounds at points of high dynamics and a lighter application where dynamics are low. (Of course, doing the exact opposite could also generate interesting effects. It's really a matter of experimenting and keeping an open mind.)


I utilized a number of these instrumental ideas in "Chamber of Severed Heads." The song is grounded in several keyboard synth sounds that mimic the effect of symphonic strings. I also utilized the "child's piano" sound at various points in the song. At one point (around 0:30) I played the main melody using a very modern metalish tone which sounds like a distorted guitar crossed with a live electrical wire. I also played around with elements of sound design, bringing in some low droning mechanical tones and tweaking their pan and volume to create a sense of increasing anxiety (this can be heard most clearly starting around one minute in to the song.)

2) Musical ideas in Horror Music

As mentioned earlier, when composing horror music one wants to focus on sounding "off." This can be accomplished musically in a number of ways.

Dissonance, the use of clashing notes, is a big part of the horror sound. But there are many types of dissonance. There are certain intervals found in the western major and minor scales that are considered dissonant* --- the tritone (flat 5) (say, C and F# played together) and the flat 9 (C and C#) are good examples --- and utilizing them in melodies or harmonies is sure to garner a creepy effect. But one can also employ a more subtle form of dissonance by tweaking the pitch of notes in tiny (microtonal) amounts. For example, slightly de-tuning some but not all of the strings on a guitar or piano will generate a certain spookiness. Or, try recording a normal melody and harmony and then slightly de-tune the melody (this can be easily accomplished in most music production computer programs) so that it subtly clashes with the harmony.

* Why certain intervals are considered dissonant and others not is beyond the scope of this article. An excellent investigation into this topic can be found in the book "This Is Your Brain on Music." (Daniel J. Levitin 2006.)

There are certain chords that contain dissonance and have become "classics" of the horror genre. Of course, any chord containing dissonant intervals is a good candidate for exploration; I list some good starting points here.

  • The min/maj 7 chord (e.g. a chord containing a minor third and a major seventh)
  • Lydian style chords (e.g. major or minor chords which contain a perfect fifth and a #4 (or 11) interval)
  • Flat 9 chords. A major chord with a flat nine interval (e.g. a G chord with the notes G, B, D and G#) has a kind of exotic, middle eastern sound. A minor chord with a flat nine interval (e.g. a G minor chord with the notes G, Bflat, D and G#) is little more in the horror vein.
  • Chord clusters. These are heard a lot in the work of 20th century classical --- particularly atonal --- composers and have that "cat walking on a piano" sound. These are basically chords containing a lot of close intervals. For example, a chord containing the notes D, E, F#, A and Bflat. Chord clusters are jarring and dissonant, and thus, perfect for horror.
  • Diminished chords. Diminished chords --- often heard in classical and jazz music --- have a very recognizable, edgy, unresolved sound. They are --- having been overused in numerous Looney Tunes cartoons -- also somewhat hokey. There is a technique, more comical than horrifying, that I would like to mention here using diminished chords. As you may know, diminished chords are formed out of stacked minor third intervals. Try the following progression, ideally played as arpeggios: A # dim | C # dim | E dim | G dim. (You're basically just moving the chord through inversions of itself.) Now, play that progression, followed by the following progression: B dim | D dim | F dim | G # dim. You'll probably start to recognize the sound of music that was often used during the silent movie era to denote increasing anxiety, such as when a beautiful maiden is tied to train tracks while the choo-choo was coming. You can keep moving the diminished patterns up chromatically for increased tension (and laughter.)
Atonal music, or music that doesn't have a clear key center, became very popular among classical composers (if not audiences) during the 20th century. Composers such as Arnold Schonberg, Igor Stravinsky and Anton Webern experimented heavily with atonal composition. While atonal composition techniques do not tend to result in catchy, hummable tunes, they can produce floating, dissonant themes and melodies that are perfect for horror. (While people might quibble over whether the film "Planet of the Apes" fits into the horror genre, it's worth noting that Jerry Goldsmith's terrific soundtrack for the movie was atonal.) Having said that, atonal music composition is a topic to itself; you could spend many years studying it. If you're really interested, check out some of the composers mentioned above and search the web and other sources for details.

Related to atonal music, but simpler, is a technique I call floating tonality. This is the concept of taking chords that are found in standard, tonal music but freeing them from their traditional roles in tonal music. Let's consider a D7 chord. In most classical and pop music, this chord's ultimate goal is to resolve itself, probably to some kind of G chord. In blues or jazz, this chord might stand on its own as a kind of vamp. But what if you say, "I believe this D7 chord is capable of so much more. I don't think it needs to resolve to G, nor do I think it needs to sit there, static like, as a verse to "Funky Funky Broadway." I think it can descend down chromatically for several steps." So you come up with a chord progression that goes something like this D7, Dflat7, C7, Cflat7, B7 etc. You're using a familiar chord, but you're using in a way in which it becomes ambiguous and ethereal. And, of course, the horror genre loves ambiguous ethereality.

It can be difficult to get the sound of this technique simply by reading about it. Try some experimentation. Take any chord and try moving it around in set intervals like a minor third, or an augmented fifth. See what kind of emotional effects are generated. (The music of Alfred Hitchcock's favorite soundtrack composer, Bernard Herrmann, is rich with these floating tonalities and is worth studying.)

John Carpenter's distinctive use of odd meter in his soundtrack for the film "Halloween" (which, of course, he also directed) mandates that the technique be discussed any time the topic of writing horror music is raised. Most popular and art music uses beat counts that are divisible by two --- 4/4, 6/8, 12/8, 2/4 and the like. (The popularity of the waltz, in 3/4, is the exception to this rule.) Of course, many beat counts can be devised based on odd numbers, such as 5/4, 9/8, 11/8 etc. Such meters are not often used in popular music because they sound weird and disjointed, or, in other words, perfect for horror music.


I employed several of these musical ideas in "Chamber of Severed Heads." Dissonant notes abound. The basic chord progression for the song (heard on the piano) is F# minor to F sus4. However, there's a a low bass part (I call it the "heartbeat bass") that is always playing a F# note, even when the harmony is on F, which results in a dissonant interval. Additionally, at around 1.45 in the song I introduced a solo soprano voice which I "pushed" into microtonal dissonance using the modulation wheel on my keyboard. I also faked the sound of a whammy bar being subtly applied to the guitar melody which again enables microtonal dissonance.

Great horror themes

In closing, I present to you several YouTube videos featuring some great horror themes. Keep the lights on!

The opening two notes of John Williams's score for "Jaws" are on equal footing with the screeching violins from Bernard Herrmann's "Psycho" score for the "Most Instantly Recognizable Horror Theme" award. All of William's work is worth a listen, but this is him at his scariest.

Dead Silence
A great modern horror score that is just a pleasure to listen to. Note the use of interesting sound design and the creepy music box melody.

Anything done by composer Bernard Herrmann in any genre is great music and worth studying. He is most famous for his numerous Hitchcock scores, especially "Psycho." I thought I'd throw in a lesser known work of his, the main title for Brian de Palma's Hitchcock homage about a man seeking what is ultimately a doomed second chance at love. (The film is admittedly more suspense than horror, but still worth perusing.)

All of the music progressive rock band Goblin composed for Italian horror director Dario Argento is unique and easily identifiable (albeit somewhat dated sounding.) I picked the mandolin rich theme to Argento's occult classic "Suspira" as an example.

As mentioned above, this theme is set to an odd meter of 5/4. It's also relatively simple and devoid of complex orchestrations. But that simplicity mimics the tone of the film. Michael Myers is not a complex villain driven by nuanced, subconscious desires. He is simply pure evil.

Another great Herrmann theme, this time from the classic Hitchcock film.

Nightmare on Elm Street
A 80's horror classic rich with sound design, children singing ("One two Freddy's coming for you...") and a great theme.

Surprise bonus: Nine Inches of Death
Just as I was finishing up this article, I composed another industrial horror tune. I'm enclosing it here: