What makes music scary?
Over the last month, we’ve been talking about how music becomes scary when it truly represents something dangerous – when it sounds like and acts like whatever the dangerous thing is that we’re watching. We talked about how the Jaws theme represents the shark with music that feels like something big and dangerous. We talked about how the Friday the 13th theme represents the killer with music that feels sinister and dangerous. We talked about how the Halloween theme represents the killer with music that feels unsettling.
But all of those horror themes would stop being scary if they decided to start being normal. That’s why the scariest music – the music that we’ve been talking about this month – is the music that never goes back to normal. To paraphrase Rod Serling, it’s the music that lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge. Music from a dimension not only of sound but of mind. The music that truly represents a place we call The Twilight Zone.
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. Over the month of October, we’ve been doing a mini-series where we took a look at 4 famous horror themes (and a fifth one on Patreon) to answer the question “What makes music scary?” So let’s conclude this mini-series by taking a look at what makes The Twilight Zone Theme scary with some help from Jeremiah Tabb, the host of the Hype Harmony podcast.
You can find the Hype Harmony podcast at HypeHarmony.com or by searching for Hype Harmony in your favorite podcasting app.
You can also support this show on Patreon at Patreon.com/SongAppeal, where you’ll find perks like sneak peeks to episodes, a brand-new episode about the theme from 28 Days Later, and the full version of the interview I had with Jeremiah Tabb about the theme from The Twilight Zone.
This episode will be spoiler-free.
I’ve been defining dissonance wrong on this show. I’ve usually defined “dissonance” as that feeling when two notes are too close together, like this: [example]. Ugh.
But that definition is a little oversimplified. Yeah, close notes are dissonant, but there are some notes that are really far apart and are still dissonant. If you play two notes that are a tritone (or 6 half-steps) apart, [example] that’s dissonant, and 6 half-steps apart is pretty far! And if you play two notes that are a major 7th (or 11 half-steps) apart, [example] that’s dissonant, too, and notes can’t get any further apart without going into a whole new octave.
So what makes notes sound dissonant even when they aren’t too close together?
Earlier this week, I interviewed Jeremiah Tabb, the host of the podcast Hype Harmony, which dives deep into the fundamental ideas of music theory. He told me “The important thing to always remember is that sound is nothing more than just pressure waves that are going through the medium of air to reach our ears. So whenever you’re thinking about sound, all it is, is wiggles in the molecules of air.”
So one sound wave might be reaching our ears at, say, 440 times per second (that’s what Hz means: the number of times sound waves reach our ears every second), and when you have just one note, that’s a nice sound. But what happens if a second note comes in? It won’t be 440Hz, or it would just be the same note. What happens when you have two notes playing and they each have a different ratio of how quickly they reach your ears?
“When you have 2 notes at the same time, they’re both fighting for the same airspace…, that larger ratio is going to have to work with the other ratio to reach your ear. So what results is all these different combinations and patterns that your ear has to latch onto.”
So what’s a good definition of dissonance? “My definition of dissonance is how complicated the relationship between those ratios is.” So when two sounds are moving through the air, and one is 440Hz and the other is 880Hz, that’s a pretty simple ratio. You can do that math in your head in less than a second, and when the sound waves reach your ear, they can work together and almost take turns reaching your ear. But when one is 440Hz and the other is 825Hz… well, that math is a little harder to do in your head. (If you’re wondering, that ratio is 15:8.) That’s why major 7ths are so dissonant. The math behind the ratios is pretty complicated, so when the sound waves reach your ear, they’re fighting for the same airspace instead of working together.
When we hear complicated, dissonant intervals like that, our brains start to crave a simple interval, kind of like when you have a hectic week and all you want is to take a break and watch Netflix. But what happens if you never get a break? What happens when the music never goes back to something simple? What happens when we get plenty of tension, but the release, the resolution never comes?
You get the unnerving, jarringly dissonant music of the Twilight Zone theme, with all their complicated ratios. And that’s one reason why the Twilight Zone theme is so scary: It perfectly represents the terror of being stuck in a living nightmare by giving us nothing but 3 unresolved, dissonant intervals: a major 2nd, a minor 2nd, and a tritone. Let’s break down each of those intervals from this psychological horror show to show how they psychologically horrify us.
The theme starts with a major 2nd. That’s 2 half-steps. Yeah, the notes can’t get too much closer together, but more importantly, the relationship between the two notes can’t be too much more complicated. The ratio here is 9:8, and how fast can you really work with 9:8 in your head? I’m not going to ask you to do the math in your head right now, but if you’re anything like me, dividing by 8 and then multiplying by 9 is complex enough that you probably can’t do it in less than a second, especially if you’re doing that kind of math on numbers like 825Hz. So our brains hear this really complicated ratio, this really dissonant interval, and we want something simple and normal again.
But exactly how dissonant is a major second, anyway? “A major second is classified as a mild dissonance…. So if you just play a major 2nd out of the blue… it’s going to sound dissonant. You’re not going to be like ‘This is home base’. You’re going to be like ‘That wants to go somewhere.’” So it’s probably not going to be harsh or grating, but it creates a lot of tension, so our minds start looking for resolution.
That feeling of tension and a desire for resolution represents the show perfectly. The original Twilight Zone series didn’t try to scare us with people dying. It preferred to scare us by leaving its characters stuck in a state of constant tension with no hope of release. So the theme represents the show by giving us the same state of constant tension with no hope of release.
So our brains go looking for a resolution, but we get a minor 2nd instead. This is the only interval closer than a major 2nd. It’s just moving from one note to the next note up. And the minor 2nd has an even more complicated ratio than the major 2nd. The major 2nd has a ratio of 9:8, but the minor 2nd has a ratio of 25:24.
How dissonant is that? “The minor second is considered a sharp dissonance. That’s its actual classification. And a sharp dissonance can’t really help but go somewhere else. If you sit on a sharp dissonance for too long, the brain literally just tunes it out.” This is really harsh dissonance. It’s a grating dissonance. It creates a lot of tension and then refuses to give the brain the resolution it wants, so the music gives us the same feeling as the show, since the show refuses to give the characters the release they want from their living nightmares.
At this point, our brains are definitely expecting a resolution. Maybe a fifth or an octave, but instead, we get a tritone, 6 half-steps. And this time, we get the most complex ratio we’ve come across: the square root of 2 to one. “So the tritone is universally claimed as an incredibly dissonant interval, and different periods of history have shied away from the tritone just because of its brilliant dissonance, its aggressive dissonance”, so much so that it’s got nicknamed “the devil’s interval” or “diabolus en musica” (literally, “the devil in music”).
And just like the rest of the notes in this song, it’s nowhere near a resolution. “It really wants to pull up to just a perfect fifth. If you think about it, it’s almost at a perfect fifth, which is one of the most consonant intervals, so our brain really just wants it to resolve.” But (you guessed it) the tension never gets released. In this song, the devil’s interval (the “diabolus en musica”) gives us the same feeling as the show gives the characters, characters who are never get released from their own personal hell, their own diabolus en cinema.
When we start hearing dissonant intervals, intervals with really complicated ratios, we feel a lot of tension. And when music gives us tension, we expect some kind of resolution, so if that resolution never comes, we feel that tension linger. So the Twilight Zone theme gives us no resolution from the major 2nd, no resolution from the minor 2nd, and definitely no resolution from the tritone, which perfectly represents how the show never lets the characters have any release.
That’s what makes this song feel so uncomfortable. “It’s really your brain with expectations, and the music is not meeting those expectations…, because your brain… wants to hear an octave and a perfect fifth, basically. A major third if you’re getting really crazy. But then when your ears receive an input of a minor second or a major second or a tritone, your brain says, just naturally, inherently, because of the complicated ratios, your brain doesn’t want to keep sorting through that. That’s why in many cultures, these sharp dissonances have been associated with trouble.”
And associating music with ideas, making music feel like trouble, not meeting expectations, that’s what this entire mini-series has been about. We associate music with ideas like monsters and murderers and that makes the music scarier. We associate music with trouble depending on its speed, its pitch, and the words. And music can avoid meeting our expectations with its time signature, its dissonance, or plenty of other ways. And most importantly, all of those musical techniques give tension and expectations. And when that tension is never released and those expectations are never met, that’s when tones turn truly terrifying.
Because horror music is all about representing what we’re seeing with something unusual, something unsettling, something that makes us feel uncomfortable. Horror music is all about musically representing what lies in the pit of man’s fears. Horror music is all about musically representing an area which we call the Twilight Zone.
Thanks for listening. If you liked this episode, check out SongAppealOfficial.com for more episodes.
You can help support Song Appeal by visiting Patreon.com/SongAppeal, where you’ll find some great perks, including an exclusive episode about the theme from 28 Days Later and the full interview with Jeremiah Tabb.
You can also find more from Jeremiah Tabb on his podcast, Hype Harmony, at HypeHarmony.com.
Again, thanks so much for listening. I’ll talk with you soon. In the meantime, have a great day. And enjoy your music.
This episode was made possible with the generous donations of the following patrons: