What makes a song unsettling?
Music can be enough make us feel like something is just wrong, like the main theme from Dead Silence.
Music can be enough to make your skin crawl. I played a few seconds of this track from first Halo game (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NpOVKbM7vlA) at my FanX presentation last month, and I could hear someone gasp in fear even though she was all the way in the last row.
And the film critic James Berardinelli commented that “[John] Carpenter’s Halloween main [theme]… can bring chills even away from the theater”. That’s why he dared: “Try putting [the Halloween theme] in the tape deck when you’re alone in the car sometime after midnight on a lonely country road, and see if you feel secure.”
But what exactly makes the music that unsettling?
Welcome to Song Appeal, where we dive into your favorite songs to answer the question “Why do we like the music we like?” I’m your host, Hunter Farris. And over the month of October, we’re doing a mini-series where we take a look at 4 famous horror themes (and a fifth one on Patreon) to answer the question “What makes music scary?” So let’s start out this mini-series by taking a look at what makes the theme from Halloween scary.
You can find the full transcript for this episode, the shownotes, and a link to hear the theme at SongAppealOfficial.com/Halloween.
We just reached our first Patreon goal, so I’ll be putting up the most requested episode pretty soon. You can send in your requests over Twitter (@SongAppeal) or over Facebook by searching for Song Appeal. You can also support this show on Patreon at Patreon.com/SongAppeal.
If you’re anything like me, you probably love dancing to (or at least bobbing your head to) songs like “Livin’ on a Prayer” by Bon Jovi. Now if you keep bobbing your head to it, you can notice this 4/4 feel to the song. “Chances are your body is hardwired into the time signature of 4/4.” That’s the YouTube music theorist Adam Neely in his excellent video about why it’s hard to play in time signatures that aren’t 4/4. Adam Neely continues: “You’ve ate, slept, and breathed in 4/4 since long before you knew what 4/4 was. It’s everywhere. We can’t really escape it.”
When so many songs are in 4/4, songs that aren’t in 4/4 really stand out. Some feel more exotic like the original Mission: Impossible theme. Some feel more heisty like the Ant-Man theme. And some feel just unsettling, like the Halloween theme. So why is the Halloween theme so unsettling? One reason is because of its 5/4 time signature, which makes us a little uncomfortable, makes everything a little late, and gives us an unexpectedly effective version of a musical jump scare.
Considering how we hear 4/4 music, well, everywhere, hearing any other time signature will make us feel that something’s a little off. Notice how “I Am the Doctor” from Doctor Who feels a little weird, like there should be an extra note or two every once in a while. That’s because it isn’t in 4/4. (If you’re wondering, it’s in 7/4.) It feels a little different from what we’re used to because it is a little different from what we’re used to.
And virtually any piece that’s in an unusual time signature will feel a little unusual. Some songs feel like they have too many notes, while other songs feel like they need more notes.
But in the Halloween theme, you can really feel that there are more notes than you’d expect. That’s because there’s so much repetition, we just keep switching back and forth between two notes, that our brains don’t have any clear idea of when there will be anything different. So we just assume the song will feel the same way other songs do. Then when we get something a little different, we feel like it should be more like what we expected. We feel like it should sound more like what we had in our heads. That’s why the first time I played this song, I was trying to plunk i out on a piano after hearing it probably once, maybe twice, and I accidentally played it in 4/4 because I just played what I expected it to be like. About 10 years later, I heard one of my piano students trying to play the Halloween theme after hearing it about once or twice, and they accidentally played it in 4/4 because they tried to play it how they expected it should sound. We all feel like it should sound more like this [Halloween in 4/4]. Ahhh… that feels better.
But the song doesn’t sound like what we’d expect and that’s one of its greatest strengths. That unexpectedness makes the song feel like something’s a little off. We might not notice it consciously, but we can still notice it subconsciously, so that this theme can still make us feel a little uncomfortable.
But it’s not just because this song isn’t in 4/4. It’s because 5/4 makes the emphasized beats a little later than we’d expect. I want you to imagine another time when you’re not late, but someone else is late for you. Imagine there’s an event you want to go to tonight, but the car is in the shop. Now the good news is you have a ride. But the bad news is: if you’re going to get there in time, your ride needs to be there… now. And your ride isn’t there and hasn’t even sent you a text that says “I’m late”. You check in with your ride to see how late you’re going to be. A minute later, there’s no response, and your ride is still nowhere to be seen. 5 minutes later, still no ride and still no response. 10 minutes, 20 minutes later, after 30 minutes you haven’t heard a word, and your ride still isn’t there.
How would you feel? Stressed? Irritable? Frustrated? After all, you expect your ride to be there by a certain time, and this is a lot later than what you expected.
When you hear the Halloween theme you expect the beats to come at certain times. So when the emphasized beats show up late, we get the same stressed feeling. We get the same tension, the same stress, the same need for things to get back to normal and for the notes to be on time, but the song never gets back to normal and the notes are never on time. Yeah, we get used to it, just like if your ride keeps showing up late, you get used to that. But as long as the song it still feels late, it still feels unsettling.
And when that lateness is applied to a horror movie, it can make jump scares even more effective. Usually the music builds up to a jump scare by getting gradually louder, faster, more dissonant, more all-around scary, until BANG! the jump scare happens. After a few decades of that, we’ve gotten used to when the bang will happen until people can count down to the bang just by hearing the music.
But there’s a scarier way. Alfred Hitchcock famously said “there is no terror in the bang. Only in the anticipation of it.” So some movies will build up to the jump scare, then when the bang should happen, they show nothing at all. Our expectation for a jump scare is subverted. But once the character feels at ease, then the jump scare will hit us and our expectations get subverted again. That way, the audience will be afraid during the anticipation of the bang and they’ll be afraid after the bang should have happened.
The theme for Halloween works in a surprisingly similar way. After centuries of 4/4 music, we got used to when the emphasis will come, to the point that we can clap, run, and dance to the beat without even thinking about it. Predicting when the beat will come in 4/4 is even more natural to us than predicting jump scares is to horror fans. But when the beat doesn’t come, our expectation for an emphasized beat is subverted and we spend the rest of the music wondering when the emphasized beat will come. And once it comes, the cycle gets repeated: We get what we expect until we don’t, and then we wait to get what we expected, and the cycle repeats itself. And this happens every single measure. Yeah, we get u
Now, was John Carpenter trying to use 5/4 time to make us feel uncomfortable, to make us feel like the music is late, or to make us feel like there’s a double-subverted jump scare?
He’s said in interviews that he thought 5/4 time was “revolutionary”, but mostly, he mostly “just liked the feel of it”. And while other composers take weeks or months to make sure their themes are just right, John Carpenter wrote the theme in 3 days.
But then again, this is the guy who made Halloween, and The Thing, and The Fog, so maybe he knew full well that using 5/4 in this exact situation would make us feel uncomfortable, and make us feel like the music is late
But whether or not he was trying to use 5/4 to make the song scary, 5/4 did make the song scary. It wasn’t the only reason, there were plenty of other factors and some of them might have been even more powerful, but 5/4 definitely helped this theme still be scary 40 years later.
James Berardinelli. Here’s the full quote. “Despite being relatively simple and unsophisticated, Halloween‘s music is one of its strongest assets. Carpenter’s dissonant, jarring themes provide the perfect backdrop for Michael’s activity, proving that a film doesn’t need a symphonic score by an A-line composer to be effective. Carpenter’s Halloween main title, one of the horror genre’s best-recognizable tunes, can bring chills even away from the theater.” That’s why he dared: “Try putting it in the tape deck when you’re alone in the car sometime after midnight on a lonely country road, and see if you feel secure.”
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