grayscale photography of person wearing clown mask

How Horror Films Use Sound for Jump Scares

The best horror movies have more than blood and gore to them. They create an environment that feels relatable and realistic. That’s why it can be scary when watching them, and the music that plays during the film plays a significant role in how you feel.

Horror composers take a different approach to the movie soundtrack. They envision the sounds they want people to hear, then translate those ideas into what an instrument can play.

When a jump scare occurs in the film, the composer builds the anticipation for the moment. During this time, many of the sounds you’ll hear mimic animals in distress because those noises generate a biological response.

Music that is nonlinear and noisy creates an emotional response, especially when the sounds are raspy and distorted. Once you reach a crescendo, there’s a let-off where the body naturally relaxes because the audio isn’t there anymore.

That’s when the jump scare occurs. You’re prepared for a break, which is why it is such a startling experience.

Past Examples of Sound Used to Create Emotions in Horror Movies

Before Psycho came out in 1960, most horror movies used strings for the soundtrack. It followed the same trend, but it added dissonance that required the musicians to remove their mutes and use down-bow techniques to create shrieking sounds.

In The Shining, Krzysztof Penderecki invented graphic musical notations to create specific sounds. The combination of 48 string instruments, half of which are violins, is uniquely creepy.

When John Williams started working on the Jaws soundtrack, this composer looked for ways to create fear by working with his trademark brass emphasis. He came up with the idea of playing the tuba in the high register to create something more threatening.

Our emotional experiences with movies involve the music that plays. Although we can understand how this mechanism works for a horror movie, that doesn’t change the fact that we still get scared by them.