How The Exorcist Changed the Sound of Horror
Why do so many horror film scores today sound similar to The Exorcist from 1973? A lot of that is thanks to Krzysztof Penderecki, a Polish composer whose music was used by director William Friedkin to score The Exorcist. Penderecki's music can be heard in the works of Stanley Kubrick and David Lynch, and has even inspired the scores of modern horror films such as Bird Box.
- Horror films don't get much respect.
But while horror has often been dismissed as lowbrow,
its music has been in-cra-ba.
- Listen to the score from the 2018
horror thriller Bird Box.
Now check this out.
("Polymorphia" by Krzysztof Penderecki)
Hear the similarities?
This experimental composition was a key part
of The Exorcist, a film that changed horror music forever.
But what is that sound and how did it come to influence
the horror films of today?
- Nahre and I are gonna compose a score
for an original scary short.
But first, let's take a look back at how scary music
has evolved from the silent era to The Exorcist to today.
- Since there's been film, there's been horror.
In the silent era, most films would either have no music
or they would be accompanied by live musicians
who would play popular or classical tunes.
Only a handful of silent horror films
were accompanied by original scores.
The music written for the 1920 release
of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was described
by one theater runner as "eligible for citizenship
"in a nightmare country".
The first time a thematic musical score was written
for a feature-length American talkie
was for the 1933 monster movie King Kong.
Written by composer Max Steiner,
this score utilized techniques that would go on
to be used in horror films for decades,
such as Mickey Mousing, in which music
matches a character's action
and leitmotifs which are short recurring musical ideas
that typically signify the presence
of a monster or a villain.
It's a technique John Williams would later use
in what's likely one of the most memorable
film scores of all time.
(Jaws theme plays)
This two note leitmotif is perfect not only
for its menacing simplicity but also for its functionality.
The quicker it gets, the closer we know the shark is.
- During Hollywood's golden age, horror films
and the scores written for them often lacked subtlety.
The music usually told the audience what to fear.
- 50s was so big, giant ants and these aliens
from outer space, where 60s, Psycho kicked it off.
It was personal.
It's a lot of interpersonal drama.
Bernard Herrmann's score in that is iconic.
(tense music) (she screams)
- Psycho's shower scene is one of the earliest examples
of the jump scare and is one of the most famous examples
of a stinger chord, a common horror music technique
where musicians sharply attack the chord
to reinforce the moment of surprise.
Hitchcock originally wanted the shower scene to be silent,
but composer Bernard Herrmann decided to write a piece
featuring violins playing the shrieking upward glissando,
which is produced when a violinist glides their fingers
up or down the strings as they play.
Hitchcock later said that "33% of the effect of Psycho
"was due to the music".
- I watch a lot of superhero movies.
Sure, the Avengers score is cool,
but I'm not gonna think of the Avengers score
when I'm kicking butt.
But when I'm scared alone at night,
I think of that horror movie score.
- One reason the stinger chord
has so effectively heightened terror in horror films
is that they manipulate the deep-rooted fear centers
in our brains.
- What makes something scary?
Experimental work has shown is that screams
that are fear-based screams, they're known to have
a very particular kind of acoustic signature.
It's called roughness.
And that gives it the kind of scraggly, fluttery vibe,
whether they're vocalized sounds or alarm sounds
or other sounds, it's the ones that have
increased roughness feature, and that's what you interpret
as a listener as fearful.
It could be a guitar string, it could be a piano sound.
It could be anything.
- Now let's fast forward to the film
that changed horror music forever, The Exorcist.
William Friedkin's 1973 classic was so terrifying
that it caused audience members to faint, vomit,
and protest its release.
Some people even thought the film itself was possessed.
That's partly because of its unforgettable soundtrack,
which included disturbing experimental compositions
that went on to shape the way horror scores
and soundtracks sound, even to this day.
("Polymorphia" by Krzysztof Penderecki)
That's the sound of Krzysztof Penderecki,
the leader of the Polish School of Avante-Garde Composers
in the 1950s and 60s.
To get this haunting sound, Penderecki used tools
like sound masses and tone clusters.
- Penderecki's score, I don't know, it sounds classic.
I love a song that I don't know when it was composed,
I didn't know if Penderecki was from the 1700s or now
and I love that it has this timeless sound to it.
It's timelessly scary, as well.
- So to create a tone cluster,
you basically take a number of pitches
that are a semi-tone apart.
For example, F sharp, G, G sharp.
These are all tone clusters.
With sound mass, the focus is more on the effect as a whole,
where we have a clump of pitches
(plays sound mass)
where the specificity of each note and rhythm
matters less than the texture as a whole.
His use of these compositional tools defy the classical form
and help take The Exorcist to a demonic dimension.
- Although Penderecki's music feels like a horror film,
he didn't write it for the screen.
Much of his experimental work was inspired
by the real-life terrors of World War II.
As a boy in Poland, Penderecki witnessed the violence
of Nazi's in his hometown of Debica.
Penderecki's music was also used
in another landmark horror film,
Stanley Kubrick's The Shining.
Horror music, horror film.
- I've never seen a real horror film
from start to finish ever, ever.
- [LA] Is this not your cup of tea?
- When I was little, I used to get scared
watching documentaries about ...
You know those documentaries that talk
about haunted houses or whatever?
- Yeah, but that stuff be real, though.
- Do you think that there's a stereotypical
horror film sound?
- [LA] I think the shrieking violins.
- [Nahre] Stuff in the higher register like ...
(high notes play) (he yells)
- [LA] Yeah.
- Or even any dissonant interval.
Dissonance is a common aspect of horror film music.
One of the most effective ways to utilize it
is through the tritone, musical interval composed
of three adjacent whole-tones.
A major third. (plays major third)
Or a perfect fifth. (plays perfect fifth)
These are all consonant intervals
where they sit quite comfortably in the ear.
Let's compare that to a tritone.
There's more tension there.
It's a clashing, dissonant sound that has helped it earn
the name The Devil's Interval in music.
And you can hear it in many horror films,
like during the canoe scene in Friday the 13th,
where composer Harry Manfredini repeats two tritones
a half-step apart.
- Another common technique is to put familiar
or non-threatening music into a creepy context.
Often, it's little kids singing children's song.
Also, quoting religious music can help set the stage
for films that traffic in the demonic.
Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind used this technique
in the opening of The Shining, with a recomposition
of Dies Irae, a 13th century Gregorian chant.
- Playing instruments in specific or extreme ways
is another powerful tool in horror film music.
You'll often hear violins play sul ponticello,
which means close to the bridge,
combined with tremolo to produce eerie me-shrul sounds.
Sometimes, simple techniques can be just as effective
at heightening dread in horror films,
such as using a bassline to mimic the sound of a heartbeat,
as John Carpenter did in The Thing.
The steady heartbeat gives us a clue
that something menacing is constantly lurking nearby
and it's coming for the characters.
Say that, just with strings,
there's something about sustaining a high note.
Like, can you hear that?
That just builds tension the more you do it.
- True. - Also really
low things like ...
- Yeah. - And then you put a cluster.
- Do you want to approach the me riding the bike
in the hallway in front of the twins?
I'll approach the door. - Okay.
- Now here's a score that we made for a horror film
starring Too-sant Morrison from our fellow PBS series,
America From Scratch.
- Little pigs, little pigs,
let me come in.
Not by the hair of my chinny-chin-chin.
And I'll huff, and I'll puff, and I'll blow your house in.
- [Both] Hi.
Come and play with us.
Come and play with us.
- Monstrum is a new show from PBS Digital Studios
about monsters, myth, and lore.
This show is written and hosted by Doctor Emily Zarka,
who has a PhD in literature with a focus on monsters.
Basically, she's a doctor of monsters.
Head to the link in the description to check out the show
and find out the origins of iconic monsters.
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