Why Scary Music Scares Us

With Halloween around the corner scary music is all around us. Haunted houses and scary movies use certain songs which makes us feel uneasy and triggers our sense of fear. Music does all sorts of things inside of our brain when it is playing. But have you ever wondered why certain music scares us? Let’s explore the sound of fear!

Possibly the most iconic scary song is the theme song from Stephen Speilberg’s 1975 film, Jaws.  The song takes advantage of crescendoing minor chords which build up suspense to the big scare when the Great white shark appears. Even though the actual mechanical shark does not have much screen time, it’s the music alone which gives the shark more existent scaring the audience. Many people claim the music taps into a primitive state, a human push for survival. The song awares us of a big incoming danger which we have little time to attempt to escape.

This led an expert in animal distress calls, Professor Daniel Blumstein, to study what biological occurrences are happening in music to trigger this biological response.  This led back to a study Blumstein did with marmots where he found out the marmots would let out a cry everytime they would pick them up. Blumstein classified these screams as nonlinear noises, when an animal blows air quickly out the vocal cords. This sets off a biological response which warns us of danger.

Blumstein was then able to note that this nonlinear sound is exactly what Hollywood directors use in their movies to scare their audience. While Hollywood still does not have the exact biological algorithm for this sound they have been pretty close. So now you know when you get scared during a movie using this music, it is the nonlinear noises which are setting off a biological response in your brain. 

Here at INSPIRE, we love to find all the fascinating implements of music on the brain. So come out and explore all the wonders of music.

2 replies
  1. Julian
    Julian says:

    This is so interesting. I like the connections you made here throughout the article. Can’t wait to see more content from this website!


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