Fear — the real reason for the Halloween season. Although we dress up and eat a bunch of candy, the best part of October 31 is the tricks more than the treats — which begs the question: How can we freak people out? Well, scientifically speaking, the right playlist can do the trick.
But what is fear and how can something as seemingly benign as music make us so afraid when our lives clearly aren’t at risk? Human instinct causes us to fear certain sounds — creaky doors, nails on a chalkboard, and cackling laughs, for example. This fear also extends to music.
According to human sound perception researchers Daniel Blumstein — professor at the UCLA Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology — and Greg Bryant — associate professor at UCLA’s Department of Communication Studies — this animal instinct leads us to fear sounds that mimic predators or prey in distress.
“In general, we study sounds that have certain features that are associated with overblowing the vocal apparatus — usually caused by high arousal when an animal is under duress (e.g., fear screams),” Bryant told us. “These features are nonlinearities — which basically means that the input going into the system results in output that is not linearly related, and thus has chaotic features such as broadband noise (e.g., distortion), rapid frequency and amplitude changes, and subharmonics (additional bands of energy between harmonics).”
This type of noise seems to capture our attention, adds Blumstein.
“Scary sounds also have rapid frequency changes because overblown sound systems fluctuate rapidly as well. We probably pay more attention to low frequencies because, in nature, big things create low frequency sounds. So, if you hear a deep bass, there may be something big and threatening around.”
So what does this mean for music?
“Our research has shown that analogues of these features can occur in music, and can have some predictable effects,” Bryant explained. “Cultural evolution can tap into these particular sensitivities in human hearing, and then over time can cause certain features to be exaggerated. Distortion became popular in the ‘50s (overblowing amplifiers) and then got more and more extreme (e.g. punk rock and heavy metal) by actually modifying the signal with a special circuit (i.e., a distortion pedal), rather than producing it through over-driving an amp. Now many musicians just use software to get the effect.”
With that in mind, Blumstein and Bryant helped us make a playlist of scary songs — according to science. Take it for a spin at your Halloween party, and then see how well you can sleep at the end of the night! Mwuahahahaha!
1. Bauhaus — Bela Lugosi’s Dead
This is a weird mix of this famous tune — much more noisy. In fact, it is clipping because of the transfer into digital (a mistake), so it has extra noise. But the song is spooky — in part I would say because of the dark foreboding bass line (slow descending pitch), and the high frequency guitar noise. The low voice contributes, of course, with monotone vocals that indicate emotional distance.
2. Aphex Twin — Come to Daddy
Broadband noise in the beginning makes this creepy. Everything, including the vocal track, is distorted. There are many unexpected frequency changes and a driving, heavy beat that makes it intense — very chaotic mix of sounds.
3. Bernard Herrman — The Murder
This is a quintessential example for us — a classic Psycho scene. High frequencies have many chaotic elements resembling screaming acoustically. It is combined with a single low frequency instrument that could be associated at some level with large predatory animals. A classic example of high- and low-frequency components that together well represent the sound of fear.
4. Billie Holiday — Strange Fruit
This one is creepy for more musical reasons I think. The minor chord sequence is emotional (though major and minor emotional effects are also probably attributable to emotional voices). But Billie also does introduce subtle distortion in her voice at certain moments. There are also unpredictable loudness changes, including high-frequency cymbals.
5. Krzysztof Penderecki — The Dream Of Jacob
This piece slowly builds up the creepy elements, using dissonant intervals with some emergent noise to create uneasiness. It is repetitive but unpredictable at the same time. In the video you can see the nonlinearities because they show the spectrogram of all the tracks.
6. Marilyn Manson — This Is Halloween
Very obvious distortion combined with other high frequency elements, including a distorted voice. The repetition also contributes to its spooky intensity. That said, this is more fun than truly scary. This could be because the beat is predictable rather than chaotic. Over-blown systems are more predictably unpredictable, but this is quite predictable.
7. Marilyn Manson — The Hands of Small Child
Low frequency, noisy, unpredictable — this is scary and quite disturbing. I think the child’s cries help increase this, but the music alone is disturbing.
8. Pink Floyd — Careful With that Axe, Eugene
This is also creepy in part because of its musical structure and the slow build-up they are so famous for. There are some early vocal moments that have nonlinear features, and the final scream toward the end is completely chaotic. They also effectively use dissonant high frequency sounds throughout, and dissonance is directly associated with negative vocals.
9. Tom Waits — What’s He Building in There?
Disturbing, disconcerting, creepy, low-intensity noises, no regular beat. The narrator’s voice is alarming, partly because of Waits’ graveling voice quality, but it’s also produced to enhance it. The unpredictability is very important for this one: Unexpected events scare us at some level because they could be linked to danger (predatory ambush).
10. Tom Waits — Hell Broke Luce
Low frequencies, an odd beat and that wonderful gravelly Tom Waits voice makes this noisy. It captures attention. Is it scary? No. Attention capturing? Yea! I think here, too, the words get in the way of the music — I’m trying to listen to the words, and that interferes with the musical effects alone.
11. Tool — Die Eir Von Satan
Irregular beat, attention-capturing pulses, distortion, and rapid frequency and amplitude changes. Even without the words, this is scary.
12. Suicide — Frankie Teardrop
I don’t think this is scary, but I think that’s because I’m listening to the words that suppress the effects of the music alone. The music alone, fast, noisy, irregular, not so ‘nice’— scary. I think this illustrates how when you mix together sounds sometimes they can lead to a suppressive effect. That said, when there are pauses between words, the music is disconcerting. Low, noisy sound with a rapid beat is pretty negative.
13. Kate Bush — Waking The Witch
Noisy and hard to resolve at some points and the distorted/noisy voice is disturbing. Not screaming but noisy, which is typically associated with screams. I don’t think the music is that scary, but the voice is.
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