Today on the blog, composer Ari Borhanian writes about their experience scoring a horror film.
Sound is possibly the most important aspect of horror films.
Don’t believe me? Try watching Paranormal Activity on mute. Instead of a deep, warbling rumble that makes your stomach drop and leaves you feeling – no, knowing – that something terrible is about to happen, every night is just a black and white, slightly blurry shot of a couple in bed and, oh no, there are some footprints on the ground! The door closed!…silently!
When I was given the opportunity to work on the soundtrack for the upcoming horror short film by New 32 Productions, Biters and Bleeders, I was excited, but terrified, and not in a horror way. I had never scored something like this before! But I was enticed by the challenge. And having just finished the final draft of the score and learned more about the art of horror music than I could have ever anticipated, I wanted to share some of what I’ve learned in the process. Even if you don’t want to make horror yourself, it’s fascinating to unpack some of the techniques filmmakers, sound engineers, and musicians use to unnerve you sonically. So here are three surprising tricks I learned from scoring my first horror film!
Jumpscares are the Answer to the Soundtrack’s Questions
It’s counterintuitive, but the often maligned, always recognized boom, string screech, or scream of a jumpscare is often vital to relieve the audience from the tension they’re holding in, and the way in which soundtracks play with that fact is part of what makes them effective. In music theory, there is a concept of questions and answers in musical phrasing, and I can explain it in a very simple way: imagine, in your mind, the musical phrase for “Yankee Doodle went to town, riding on a pony”. The way the notes end in that phrase leave it feeling incomplete, don’t they? It leaves you as a listener expecting more. Meanwhile, the melody for “stuck a feather in his hat and called it macaroni” ends on the tonic note, or the “base” note in the chord. It’s satisfying!
In horror soundtracks, it’s better to aim for questions than answers in musical phrasing. When we stare down the dark hallway and ask ourselves “what could be at the end of this corridor?” we want the soundtrack to ask the question, too. Tension in the notation, instrumentation, and melody ensure that the music isn’t fighting against the visuals. The audio is as scary and mysterious and unnerving as what’s on the screen. Then, when we see what is waiting in the darkness, and the SCREAM of the jumpscare rings out, it’s an answer to the question. A very loud, firm, frightening, and strangely satisfying answer.
Every Sound is a Note
The first question I found myself asking when I began to work on the soundtrack was “What instruments will I use?” Obviously, I wanted to incorporate some of the classics, your strings and heavy drums and whatnot, but I was concerned that my results would end up stereotypical or, worse, bland. But the very first – and possibly most important – trick I learned in scoring a horror film came from one of Biters and Bleeders’ producers, who suggested that the soundtrack include the sound of cicadas somewhere in the mix.
When I got home from that first discussion, I immediately got to work exploring how the beautiful, relaxing sound of cicadas could fit into a horror soundtrack, and the second I began to incorporate them, the vision for the score as a whole began to take shape. I realized that, while of course the traditional instruments I was envisioning would still be great additions to the tracks I was writing, branching out and really exploring the sound in soundtrack opened my world to what a song could be. Breaths, bugs, and the lick of flames became percussion, ambiance, and even musical instruments that helped turn the Biters and Bleeders score into something unique.
If You Don’t Know how to Do Something…Invent Your Own Way
As a songwriter first, producer second. I’ll admit that I was anxious about facing off against the greats in horror soundtracks, even if it was for my first horror film. I faced a lot of imposter syndrome starting out, convincing myself that every other musician who had ever worked on a horror score knew a series of obvious, secret tricks that I had just never learned. I remember, for example, wanting to create a jumpscare noise that plays at the end of a particularly ethereal and deceptive track, and at first, in my self-doubt, I searched fair use libraries for some great jumpscare noises. And there were plenty! But when I placed them next to my track, it felt like I had left the language of the score I was creating and returning somewhere almost too familiar. I decided, in that moment, that I was going to invent my jumpscare noise, even if it was entirely different from what I was expecting it to sound like going in.
By creating my own sound, I realized that plenty of the greats in horror soundtrack history didn’t go in knowing how to do everything right off the bat. John Carpenter, now considered to be one of the best in the business, scored the film simply because he liked making music and knew it would save him money. The greatest results in art come from a combination of a respect for the technique, an understanding of the history, and a willingness to try things your way if you’re new to them, and while not all experiments work (there are plenty of sounds and tracks I tried for the film that ended up on the cutting room floor before I achieved what I was looking for) it’s by stepping outside of your comfort zone and exploring something new that you are able to find your own unique voice in a very, very crowded genre.
As a musician, I always strive to improve my work with everything I work on, and having the privilege of working on Biters and Bleeders for New 32 Productions allowed me to pick up surprising tricks along the way and achieve, I think, new heights in my art. Even if you’re not planning to make scores of your own, I think there are some valuable lessons to take from artistic ventures such as this one. One of the reason I adore horror so much is that it is a genre just begging for creativity, as there’s nothing scary about the overly familiar, is there? It’s in taking the leap, trying new things and exploring the unknown, that we face our fears and conquer them.
Interested in Biters and Bleeders? Check out the trailer, which features more original music from yours truly!