What makes a song scary?
Have you ever been creeped out by the music at a haunted house?
Have you ever watched a movie with a soundtrack that just terrified you?
Have you ever gotten in the pool only to hear someone sing “duh duhn”?
What made that theme so enduring? And so scary?
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’ll do 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 Jaws theme scary.
You can also support this show on Patreon at Patreon.com/SongAppeal.
The Jaws theme just might be the most enduring piece of horror music ever. The movie came out in 1975, and over 40 years later, my piano students still recognize the song… even if they’re under the age of 8. Over 40 years later, people are still afraid of sharks, even though selfies kill more people than sharks. And over 40 years later, as soon as my dad gets his swimming trunks on and his head underwater, he hears in his mind [the Jaws theme].
And even Spielberg said, “I think the score was clearly responsible for half of the success of that movie.”
That’s partly because you can feel the shark is there, but more importantly, you can feel that the shark is dangerous. The Jaws theme gives us the feeling of being chased by something that could eat you because it’s a leitmotif that uses low notes, a gradual increase in speed, and an uneasy amount of dissonance. Let’s dive into the music theory behind why the Jaws theme is so scary.
Part of why this theme worked so well was because it was something called a “leitmotif”. A leitmotif (spelled l-e-i-t-m-o-t-i-f, if you’re wondering) is the shortest possible piece of music that represents a person, place, or thing. When we hear the Imperial March, we think of Darth Vader. When we hear “Is She With You?” from Batman v Superman, we think of Wonder Woman. When we hear the Jaws theme, we think of the shark. In fact, the Jaws theme is probably the best example of a leitmotif to ever be put to film. Not only is it as short as it can be – you only need to play 2 notes – but it represents a character better than perhaps any other piece of music ever.
Because this leitmotif had to represent the shark better than any piece of music ever had. You see, the mechanical shark wasn’t working for a surprising amount of the filming. So Spielberg found an ingenious solution: Just don’t show the shark. Not until he had to, at least. But if the camera wasn’t going to show the shark, something else had to tell the audience that the shark is coming. Enter the music that would play anytime the shark was near. That way, even if you didn’t see the shark, when you heard that theme, you knew the shark was there.
But this leitmotif didn’t just need to give us a feeling that something is there. It needed to give us a feeling of what this shark was. So the Jaws theme gives us the idea that this shark is big enough to eat you by using some of the lowest notes it possibly can. The cellos are playing the lowest E and the lowest F that they possibly can. You can almost feel the instruments groaning from the strain of playing notes that low.
Why does that matter? Because in our minds, low sounds come from big things and high sounds come from small things. The YouTuber Sideways made a great video about why low noises sound like big things and high noises sound like small things, and if you want to watch it, I’ll include a link at SongAppealOfficial.com/Jaws.
His video points out that humans needed to associate low sounds with big things and high sounds with small things if we were going to survive. If we hadn’t learned that early on, we would hear some big scary animal in the bushes and assume it’s just a bird. Or we might become paranoid and think every sound is something that could eat us. To avoid being eaten and avoid paranoia, our brains gave us a general rule of thumb: Low sounds come from big things; high sounds come from small things.
And the notes in the Jaws theme are really low, compared to the sounds that animals make. Here’s the sound of a very small cat’s meow. Now here’s the sound of a lion’s roar. It’s lower, so we feel like it’s bigger. Now here’s the sound of the Jaws theme. It’s even lower, so we can feel that the thing this leitmotif represents must be even bigger than a lion.
If it were using higher notes, the theme wouldn’t have the same effect on us. Here’s the same E and F, played 3 octaves higher [music]. But since the theme is as low as it is, we can feel that this piece of music represents something big enough to eat you alive.
Second, the Jaws theme gets faster a little bit at a time. In music theory terms, it uses an “accelerando”. Or “accelerando”, if you’re feeling fancy. At first, the theme plays every 6 seconds, then every 4 seconds, then twice in a row with no pause. And then after 3 seconds of hearing nothing, we hear the theme continuously, and then it doubles its speed for the rest of the song.
Now, if this were just a piece of music for music’s sake, we’d feel like it’s just getting faster a little bit at a time. But since this is a leitmotif, since this is a piece of music that represents something (in this case, a shark), we get to feel that the shark is getting faster and faster, because the music starts moving faster and faster.
Now, since this leitmotif focuses on low notes and uses an accelerando, we can feel that the leitmotif represents something big that’s moving faster and faster. But that doesn’t have to mean the big moving thing is dangerous. It could be something peaceful, something that doesn’t want to hurt you, like a blue whale. It could be something big that’s just minding its own business, like an elephant.
This movie doesn’t need to give the idea that the shark is big and the shark is moving. This movie needs to give the feeling that if the shark is moving, that’s dangerous. So it needs something that gives tension, something that gives a feeling of unease, something that gives the feeling that something’s wrong.
So it uses dissonance. Dissonance is that feeling when notes are too close together, like this [example], and in the Jaws theme, the notes can’t get any closer. After all, they’re only a half-step apart.
Now, usually dissonance involves notes that are played at the same time, but the Jaws theme uses a more subtle type of dissonance: dissonance between one note and the next note. So the dissonance is more subtle than we’re used to, but people can still feel that these notes are too close for comfort.
Most people think of notes in terms of how much higher or lower they are than the notes before them. After all, you don’t hear the chorus of “Sugar, We’re Goin’ Down” by Fall Out Boy and think “that starts on a D, then moves to an A, then F#, then….” No, you feel a starting note, feel a big jump up and a medium jump down, then you feel the notes stepping down and stepping up. You’re not thinking about which notes you’re hearing. You’re thinking about how much higher this note is than the last note. And when you hear the Jaws theme, you’re thinking “This note is not much higher”, and you’re feeling that the notes are really close.
Since the notes are really close and they come one after another, the dissonance gives us the subtle feeling that something is wrong, and that a moving shark means danger.
The Jaws theme has one purpose: Make the audience feel like something big enough to eat you is chasing you.
If that theme weren’t a leitmotif, if it weren’t representing a character, it wouldn’t be scary. When Antonín Dvořák used basically the same tune in his New World Symphony, nobody fled in terror. No, this theme is only scary because it represents something.
We can feel that it represents something big because of how low the notes are.
We can feel that it represents something that’s moving faster and faster because the notes are getting faster.
And we can feel that it represents something dangerous because of the subtle dissonance.
In our minds, this theme is the shark. It tells us the shark is there when we can’t see it. And on top of that, it does what the shark does. And that’s what letimotifs were always supposed to do. They were supposed to represent a person, place, or thing, and this theme truly represents the shark.
We can feel from the music alone that the thing we’re watching is dangerous. That’s what makes the Jaws theme scary.
Thanks for listening. If you liked this episode, check out SongAppealOfficial.com for more episodes.
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Again, thanks so much for listening. I’ll talk with you soon. In the meantime, have a great day. And enjoy your music.
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