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The Sounds of Cinematic Suspense

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

As two classic film scores illustrate, certain sounds are designed to trigger fear and suspense. In "Psycho," Bernard Herrmann’s screeching violin score mimicked the screams that filled the Bates Motel bathroom – and theaters. With "Jaws," John Williams’ pulsing dum-dum-dum-dum shark-heralding score became implanted on the brains of beach-goers everywhere.

With both films marking major anniversaries this summer (50 and 35, respectively) we look at why some music delivers the goose bumps. Joining us is Jack Sullivan, author of Hitchcock’s Music, and Dr. Meagan Curtis of Tufts University's Music Cognition Lab


Dr. Meagan Curtis and Jack Sullivan

Comments [11]

Toby DeGard from Temercula,CA

I always loved John Carpenters Halloween Theme.He plays in 5/4 time and really puts an errie feel to it.

Jul. 01 2010 11:00 AM
magnus westergren from Manhattan

The theme song to Requiem for a Dream, by Kronos Quartet. Absolutely the eeriest and most disturbing piece of cinematic music I know of.

Jun. 29 2010 10:28 PM
Ted from Atlanta

My wife is fascinated by the tension created by Johnny Greenwood's percussive score from There Will Be Blood.

For the person doing the tone research, for some reason on a previous Sound Check, the music of Meredith Monk came up. I quickly found some of her wordless screeching, moaning, wild vocalizing for my Halloween party soundtrack; there was no debating when she was making sounds that were intentionally horrific v/s soothing, due to tone, rhythm, notes... generally all audible characteristics. I do wonder what other cultures would make of that, as no-one could understand her non-words.

Jun. 29 2010 02:50 PM
Jeb from Greenpoint

What about the use of happy music as counterpoint? The dissonance of image and sound? Ex: Singin' in the Rain in Clockwork Orange.

Jun. 29 2010 02:36 PM
Peter Sonne from Manhattan

Howard Shore's score for Cronenberg's remake of THE FLY is a great symphonic score, filled with romance, dread and pathos and really makes the final scenes work.

Jun. 29 2010 02:33 PM
john from nj

Oops. The "Omen" score was by Jerry Goldsmith.

Jun. 29 2010 02:33 PM
Judy from Baldwin, LI

I love the sequence from Murder On The Orient Express (I believe the composer was Maurice Jarre) showing the kidnapping and aftermath. He used slurred strings and for the action sequences that are done in low light and then percussion and chimes (I think) when the scenes are punctuated with newspaper headlines. It creeps me out every time I see and hear it!

Jun. 29 2010 02:32 PM
john from nj

Another great and wonderfully scary soundtrack is the score for the original "Omen" film. Also by John Williams, I believe. It uses a choir that sounds like a black mass being chanted by fallen angels. Delicious.

Jun. 29 2010 02:26 PM
Sandra from Astoria

I LOVE the theme song from the original "Halloween"! That high-pitched, repetitive piano is terrifying and really conveys the relentless nature of the killer.

Jun. 29 2010 02:25 PM
Tim Goldman from Jackson Heights, NY

The singing children at the end of Poltergeist is very creepy!

Jun. 29 2010 02:24 PM
David Askew from Brooklyn

To this day, John Carpenter's score for "Halloween" has been the creepiest, most suspenseful horror film music I have heard.

Jun. 29 2010 02:24 PM

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