Scan | Journal of Media Arts Culture
Volume 10 Number 1 2013

Sinister Sonorities: The new sound of horror cinema in the 1970s

Clare Nina Norelli

In the 1970s the cinema of horror underwent stylistic and thematic changes that reinvigorated the genre. These innovations were not only limited to the films’ visual diegesis but were also heard in their commanding musical scores. Previously, the majority of horror scores featured traditional orchestrations with an emphasis on harmonic dissonance to heighten dramatic tension. The scores of classic horror cinema, like a lot of those of early cinema, often relied on musical cliché or pre-existent Classical themes in order to convey unconscious forces to their audiences. As the technology through which people listened to music advanced, musical fashions came and went, styles evolved and new genres were born, all allowing exposure to a worldwide audience. Through home phonographs or trips to see the latest ‘talkie’ film, people were now able to hear music they would not have otherwise heard outside a night at the local concert venue. It was therefore inevitable that music written for film would change and diversify as a result, drawing influence from a wealth of material from around the globe. Further innovation in music technology also saw the emergence of new instruments whose ‘otherworldly’ timbres were particularly suited to the cinema of horror. It could also be said that exposure to the avant-garde compositions of the 20th century worked to the advantage of horror film composers, who drew inspiration from the experiments of composers of atonal music, musique concrète and minimalism. This enhancement of the film composer’s musical palette thus allowed the composer to draw from, and experiment with, a myriad of sounds in order to elicit maximum ‘scares’ from his or her audience. (For the purposes of this paper “audience” refers to persons engaged in the act of both viewing and listening to a film).

The Score in Early Horror Cinema

The scores of early horror cinema adhered predominantly to the musical accompaniment techniques already established in silent films. Classical works continued to be used not only because they had already come to connote certain moods and action onscreen, but also because their public domain status allowed the works to be used at no cost to producers. In Todd Browning’s Dracula (1931) the opening credit music is a modified excerpt from Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake Op.20 (1876). This work was also used in another Universal horror film the following year, heard in the credits for The Mummy (1932). Swan Lake had been previously used in silent films as a ‘misterioso’, and thus the films could capitalise on what the work had already come to signify (Rosar 1994: 394). Also carrying over from silent film accompaniment tradition was the use of cues from compiled music collections such as the ‘Sam Fox Moving Picture Music’ series. In a bid to create continuity in the live musical accompaniment of the films, these collections were issued by studios and featured short pieces both culled from the Classical music canon and composed especially for the publication. This would then act as a guide to a cinema’s in-house accompanist as to what cues should feature where. In a testament to their effectiveness and staying power, these little musical ‘clichés’ can still be recognised by the cinemagoer of today. The disinterest in commissioning original scores for film appears indicative of the producer’s attitudes towards the role of music in cinema at the time. It was felt, for example, that the music would be distracting and drown out the dialogue, and that the audience would be disoriented as to the source of the music if it did not appear to originate in the diegesis (Rosar 1994: 391). The inoffensiveness of the cues in the collection thus allowed for minimum disturbance of the onscreen action.

In 1935, Universal studios released a sequel to their acclaimed film, Frankenstein (1931) entitled The Bride of Frankenstein (1935). The film featured a musical score by Franz Waxman that was very different from those composed previously for horror cinema. Waxman set standards for the genre in using such tension-building devices as instrumental effects (e.g. sul punticello and tremolo on strings, in which the rapid oscillation between two notes suggests instability) and ostinati (repetition of a phrase) (Cooke, 2008: 99). Furthermore, of course, harmonic dissonance and chromaticism were of vital importance in establishing character and mood.

Dissonance has long been exploited in the Western musical canon in order to garner a particular response from audiences. When asked as to how they feel when listening to a work rooted in a minor key that features a large amount of dissonance, most Western listeners will invariably reply that they feel some sort of unease. As Norman Cazden, quoted by Leonard B. Meyer in Emotion and Meaning in Music states

In [Western] musical harmony the critical determinant of consonance and dissonance is expectation of movement…A consonant interval is one which sounds stable and complete in itself, which does not produce a feeling of necessary movement to other tones. A dissonant interval causes a restless expectation of resolution, or movement to a consonant interval…Context is the determining factor. (Meyer 1970: 230)

Thus, the avoidance of harmonic consonance in a piece of music causes trepidation in the Western listener, who is accustomed to having music resolve in the above manner. Waxman’s ‘Bride’ score used further unfamiliar musical material in the form of whole tone scales (decidedly ‘Eastern’) and augmented triads (Rosar 1994: 410). The addition of organ to the orchestration further heightened the spooky atmosphere due to its ability to work with the audience’s association of the instrument with the funereal and supernatural.

The (Sound)Wave of the Future: The Theremin and Electronic Instrumentation as 'Other'

The theremin is one of the earliest electronic musical instruments and was developed in 1919 by Russian physicist and cellist, Leon Theremin. Theremin had intended for his instrument to be used primarily for Classical performance but given the instrument’s ‘spooky’ tone (produced via a pair of tuned radio-frequency oscillators controlled by the player’s hand’s proximity to the theremin’s antenna) it seemed destined for more esoteric usage.

The first film score to feature the theremin was Dmitri Shostakovich's for the Russian film, Odna (1931). It was not until the 1940s that Hollywood caught on to its evocative sound and composers such as Robert E. Dolan and Miklos Rozsa utilised the instruments for the score of the psychological noir of The Lady in the Dark (1944) and Spellbound (1945) respectively. In the former, James Wierzbicki notes that the theremin’s role is more of that of a sound effect, whose “quivery tones…serve as the requisite “signifier” whenever the protagonist submits to treatment” (Wierzbicki 2002). Already the instrument’s unusual, electronically generated timbre has begun to be associated with instability and dread.

Rozsa’s next score to include theremin, The Lost Weekend (1945), further solidified the relationship between electronic instrumentation and the disturbed. The film’s narrative centers on an alcoholic writer named Don Birnham (played by Ray Milland) and a particularly indulgent weekend, and elements of the film could be considered ‘horrifying’ in nature. In one scene that features the expressionistic film noir lighting of the era, Birnham experiences alcohol withdrawals and begins to hallucinate, believing to be in the presence of a bat that flies around his apartment and eventually kills a mouse. As the bat attacks and the mouse’s blood trickles down the wall the theremin enters, and though on the periphery of the audial radar its presence on the soundtrack is of vital importance. The sonic assault created by the instrument’s wailing in combination with Milland’s bloodcurdling howls adds much to a decidedly Poe-ian scene that may have otherwise appeared dated due to its rather clumsy special effects.

Figure 1: The Lost Weekend (Dir. Billy Wilder, 1945)

As a result of a newfound national obsession with extraterrestrial life in post-WW2 USA, Hollywood began to release a spate of science fiction films in the early 1950s. It seemed apt that an instrument capable of producing otherworldly sonorities should voice an advanced creature from another world, so composers took to the new electronic instruments available to utilise in their scores. As Wierzbicki notes, “the dramatic contexts into which the theremin is introduced almost always suggests that the instrument’s ethereal sound is somehow diegetic, that is, that it emanates not just from a member of the studio orchestra but also from something actually contained within the film’s narrative” (Wierzbicki 2002: 126). Films such as The Day the Earth Stood Still (1950) with a score by Bernard Herrmann and The Thing from Another World(1951) with score by Dmitri Tiomkin, utilised the theremin to great effect, creating an unsettling atmosphere via the instrument’s wavering tones. John Carpenter was a big fan of The Thing from Another World (he would remake this in 1982) and his film score work, to be discussed later in this paper, was particularly influenced by Tiomkin’s use of theremin (Zinoman 2011: 183). Science fiction cinema also included other electronic instruments to underscore alien landscapes and creatures. Bebe and Louis Barron’s score for Forbidden Planet (1956) was comprised solely of electronic tones and was the first of its kind. The world of the film is terrorised by Freudian "Id" monsters, once again linking synthesised sounds to darker psychological forces.

The 1960’s

By the 1960’s pop and rock music had taken off, and film studios sought to profit from the nascent recording industry by releasing singles via their films. Sometimes these songs appeared as part of the diegesis, with bands and singers making cameos in the film; other times it replaced the score and commented on the film’s narrative. They also acted as a “signifier of modernity”, as studios tried to keep up with the changing tastes of their audience and not appear outdated (Donnelly 2005: 101). This of course meant film composers had to adapt to this new trend. In 1960 Bernard Herrmann provided one of the most memorable and influential film scores in cinematic history: his entirely string-based score for Psycho (1960). Herrmann’s ingenious scoring for the film’s famous shower murder imitated the murderer’s knife stabbing flesh via slashing glissando dissonance, providing cinema with its most potent primal scream. Though Hitchcock never revealed the knife penetrating the victim’s skin audiences were reportedly convinced that they had seen it, testament to Herrmann’s highly suggestive writing. The non-linear frequencies of this string dissonance also imitate the sound of screaming and, given “screams contain nonlinearities to communicate fear…fearful and emotionally evocative sounds are characterised by non-linear acoustic elements”, composers are able to utlise these non-linearities in order to elicit an emotional response from an audience (Blumstein 2010).

Figure 2: Shower Scene in Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960, USA)

Herrmann’s score created a blueprint for subsequent horror scores, but the composer found his career losing momentum in the 60’s due to the this emerging trend of using pop and rock to soundtrack films. In fact, he and Hitchcock famously ended their creative partnership when it was requested that Herrmann compose a pop song for Torn Curtain (1966). Herrmann refused and Hitchcock stated, “We do not have the freedom that we would like to have because we are catering to an audience. That is why you get your money and I get mine…the audience is very different to the one we used to cater” (Zinoman 211: 102). Ending perhaps the most famous of director/composer partnerships, John Addison was subsequently hired to provide Torn Curtain’s score. Herrmann however, would find that his career would recover in the 1970’s as a host of new directors who recognised his talent for underscoring terror and psychological instability would utilise this ability to great effect.

Advances in music technology allowed greater accessibility to new instruments by musicians and composers in the 1960s, and as a result rock and pop music evolved as genres. Horror score in the ‘60s had continued to feature high levels of dissonance in order to create tension, but films such as Carnival of Souls (1962) and Blood Feast (1963) featured the eerie tremolo tones of the electric organs that became popular in homes during the decade. The use of organ also worked with pre-established associations between the instrument and, as discussed earlier, the funereal. As a genre however, the vast majority of cinemagoers considered horror cinema low art, and it wouldn’t be until the 1970’s when, thanks to a group of daring young auteurs, people began to flock once more to the cinema of fear.

The 1970’s and the New Sounds of Fear

Argento and Prog-Rock

Ennio Morricone had established a name for himself as the composer of memorable score for the films of Sergio Leone. His scores for these films ( (‘spaghetti westerns’) featured unique orchestration, with imaginative vocal writing, sound effects and exotic instruments such as the ocarina. Morricone met giallo (a genre of Italian murder-mystery cinema and literature) director Dario Argento on one of the films, and in the early 1970’s provided scores for Argento’s ‘animal trilogy’: L’ucello dalle piume di cristallo (The Bird with Crystal Plumage) (1970), Il Gatto a nove code (The Cat O’Nine Tails) (1971) and Quattro mosche di velluto grigio (Four Flies on Grey Velvet) (1972). All three films feature Morricone’s trademark lush orchestration that match the disconcerting sensuality of Argento’s disturbing cinema, but Morricone also borrowed from rock, folk, jazz and even nursery music to enrich his scores.

Sometimes his choice of instrumentation was by the film’s narrative. For example in ‘Flies’, the protagonist is a drummer in a rock band and consequently his score his heavily percussive. Interestingly, and indicative of the popularity of progressive rock or ‘prog-rock’ at the time, Argento had initially wanted the band Deep Purple for the film, and the band’s sound no doubt had an influence on Morricone’s scoring. As Diedler D. Deutsch comments in his liner notes to the Argento/Morricone soundtrack compilation from 1995, there is both diegetic and non-diegetic use of organ, piano effects and “a score which teemed with weird sonorities, chilling arpeggios, and ominous drumbeats help reinforce the action on screen” (Mitchell 2009: 91).

The influence of prog-rock in horror cinema also began to be heard in large-budget productions. In 1973 The Exorcist (1973) was released to positive reviews and proved a box office hit. Garnering two Academy Awards, the film’s success also signified that horror was now entering the mainstream, and its soundtrack also utilised a piece of music from Mike Oldfield’s hugely popular prog-rock album of the same year, Tubular Bells. The album’s signature repetitive piano/glockenspiel motif became synonymous with The Exorcist, and this clever employment of motivic repetition in order create an atmosphere of urgency could also be heard in several other horror scores of the 1970s.

Another artist enlisted by Dario Argento on a number of his film scores was the Italian prog-rock band, Goblin. Their opening theme music for Profondo Rosso (Deep Red) (1975) is reminiscent of Oldfield’s music from ‘Tubular Bells’ with its synthesised, repetitive motif. Their entire score “buil[ds] up a fabric of rhythmic underscore for the film” via its use of rock instrumentation (Donnelly 2005: 102). This use of repetition in the score, particularly for the music that appears during the murder scenes, seems to intone doom; the victim cannot escape, and the rhythm drives ushers them towards death. Goblin also upheld the tradition established by Morricone for Argento’s films by contrasting the extreme violence with childlike nursery music.

Perhaps the best example of the band’s work with Argento was on Suspiria (1977). In the opening credits a cacophony of noise is heard building up until the title ‘Suspiria’ appears on screen. The Suspiria theme begins as a saccharine motif on celeste, once again that ‘nursery’ sound here connoting a sense of innocence or naivety in the protagonist, Suzy. In the second statement of this motif a ghoulish voice is heard half-whispering, half-singing, resulting in an overall sound that is exceedingly creepy. The delivery of the breathy voice is discordant and consequently the effect of it being in unison with a tuned instrument is unsettling to the ear. As the credits finish, the theme is cut short by the same build-up of noise heard at the credits’ inception. The implications of the theme in terms of the film’s narrative are rather obvious; Suzy’s intentions are innocent and filled with childlike desire but ultimately she is thrown into a world of darkness and all-consuming terror.

Figure 3: Theme: Suspiria (Dario Argento, 1977)

Goblin’s music for Suspiria is violent and overwhelming, enveloping the audience with the sheer brutality of its sonic assault. As K.J. Donnelly notes, “In horror films, in particular, music can manifest a distinctive and enveloping ‘sound architecture’ or ambience…it can be more than simply ‘backdrop’…” and this is indeed the case with the Suspiria score (2005: 94). The music is almost instinctual or carnal in its underscoring of violence, and its “emotional schisms and energy peaks…[bludgeon] the viewer into accepting the ‘senseless violence’ on screen” (Brophy 2004: 100). Goblin’s Suspiria score proved incredibly popular with audiences, and the band would go on to work further with Argento on numerous films, as well as on other horror films such as cult favourite, Dawn of the Dead (1978).

John Carpenter and D.I.Y.

Before any images or credits appear in Halloween (1978), a piano motif emerges from the blackened screen acting as an admonition of the horrors that are about to ensue. Comprised of four notes in two different time signatures, the motif is repeated incessantly and accompanied by an electronic rhythm conveying a sense of breathless urgency; a sense that time is running out and evil is lurking. As this motif continues, a rather ghastly, lit pumpkin head appears on screen synchronised with the appearance of a second, three note motif heard in the bass of the piano and synthesiser. This motif evokes a sense of doom and functions an indicator of the presence of the film’s killer, Michael Myers (Tony Moran) aka ‘The Shape’. As Jason Zinoman notes, “The music in Jaws told you something was coming [whereas] the music in Halloween made it clear that it was never going away.” (Zinoman 2011: 179).

Figure 4: Opening Credits: Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978, USA)

After a poor reception at a test screening of Halloween, John Carpenter decided to save his film by composing a score himself. Unable to afford an orchestra or a composer himself, he composed an incessant piano motif that sounds, like Goblin’s Suspiria score, inspired by, or at least, similar to, Oldfield’s ‘Tubular Bells’. Carpenter has also underscored many of his own films with his synthesiser improvisations, and his experiments were indicative of the greater accessibility of synthesisers and recording equipment in the 1970’s. Now filmmakers, if so inclined, could compose their own scores for minimum cost and thus control a greater proportion of their cinematic vision. Other filmmakers who underscored (via collaboration) the horror of their own films include Tobe Hooper (with Wayne Bell) for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1975) and David Lynch (with sound designer Alan Splet) for Eraserhead (1977). Both the soundtracks of these films could be considered ‘soundscapes’ in that though musical tones are present, they feature a large amount of static noise and sound effects.

Though not the director of the film, David Allen Hess provided the music for the controversial The Last House on the Left (1972), as well as playing lead villain, Krug. Whilst using some synthesised sounds, his soundtrack draws heavily from the folk-rock idiom that was big in the 1960’s and is almost ironic in its usage, contrasting greatly with the images of violence onscreen. Hess acts as somewhat of a narrator and moral authority as well, his saccharine sounds bringing a degree of poignancy and relief from the onscreen mayhem. This score is yet another example of being able to keep costs to a minimum, whilst still being highly original.

The Return of Bernie

After having watched a scene of his movie, Sisters (1973), with a temp track featuring music from Psycho, Brian De Palma noticed that “suddenly a scene [he] had viewed 20 times before took on new visceral dimensions... [Herrmann’s] music had breathed a new emotional force into my film" (De Palma 1973: 85). Consequently the famous composer’s salary became the most expensive item on the film’s budget. Initially De Palma had not wished for music to be played in the opening titles, but Herrmann balked, stating, “No title music? Nothing horrible happens in your picture for the first half an hour. You need something to scare them right away. The way you do it they'll walk out” (1973: 85). The experienced composer was of course right, and the result was a title cue featuring Moog synthesisers heard over X-ray photos of two growing fetuses in the womb. The opening brass motif accompanied by tubular bells seems to mimic that of a children’s playground taunt and further associations of childhood innocence are created via the nursery-evoking sounds of the glockenspiel. However, the wailing Moogs and dissonant, dramatic strings hint at something far more sinister and psychotic in the works. Herrmann’s juxtaposition of such contrasting musical material (again, the aforementioned sweet/abrasive dichotomy), and the variation in timbre created by the unusual orchestration for puts one on the edge of their seat long before De Palma’s first murder scene takes place.

Figure 5: Trailer for Sisters (Brian De Palma, 1973)

Initially, De Palma had been concerned when Herrmann had suggested the use of the Moog synthesizer, an instrument that had become incredibly popular in the 1970’s, and assumed that the composer who had lost a job because of his refusal to write pop music in the 1960’s was going to write him a pop title cue. But Herrmann remained true to form, producing a score that accompanied the psychological dread and complimented the horror of De Palma’s images perfectly. His career having been reignited, led him to work on several other high profile films until his death in 1977, including another horror film, It’s Alive (1974) and the critically acclaimed Taxi Driver (1977).

The exposure to wide a variety of musical genres and greater accessibility to advancements in music technology allowed film composers to compose and produce their own music in the 1970s and it also resulted in a decade of highly original horror film scoring. Paired with the unprecedented images of violence they accompanied, this music still has the ability to influence and unnerve today. Though some powerful horror scores such as Pino Donaggio’s for Carrie (1976) and Jerry Goldsmith’s for Alien (1979) were orchestrated for more traditional instruments, the influence of the new scoring practices of the 1970’s is undeniable, and there influence can still be heard in the horror films of today.


Blumstein, D. (2010) “The Sound of Fear”, a lecture given at Darwin Evolving Lecture Series by Dr Dan Blumenstein, Professor and Chair Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology on 2/2/10,, accessed June 1, 2012.

Brophy, P. (2004) 100 Modern Soundtracks, London: British Film Institute

Cooke, M. (2008) A History of Film Music, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

De Palma, B. (1973) “Murder by Moog: Scoring the chill”, in The Village Voice, October 11, p.85.

Donnelly, K.J. (2005) The Spectre of Sound: Music in Film and Television, London: British Film Institute.

Mitchell, T. (2009) “Prog Rock, the Horror Film and Sonic Excess: Dario Argento, Morricone and Goblin”, in Terror Tracks: Music, Sound and Horror Cinema, Philip Hayward (ed.), London: Equinox Publishing.

Meyer, L.B. (1970) Emotion and Meaning in Music, University of Chicago Press.

Rosar, W. (1994) “Music for the Monsters: Universal Pictures’ Horror Film Scores of the Thirties”, in The Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress 40.4, Fall pp.390-421.

Wierzbicki, J. (2002) “Weird vibrations: how the theremin have musical voice to Hollywood’s extraterrestrial “others” ”, in Journal of Popular Film and Television 30.3, Autumn, pp.123-135.

Zinoman, J (2011) Shock Value: How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood, and Invented Modern Horror, London: Duckworth Overlook, 2011

Filmography (in order of article)

Dracula (Todd Browning, 1931, USA)

The Mummy (Karl Freund, 1932, USA)

Frankenstein (James Whale, 1931, USA)

The Bride of Frankenstein (James Whale, 1935, USA)

Odna (Grigori Kozintsev and Leonid Trauberg, 1931, USSR)

The Lady in the Dark (Mitchell Leisen, 1944, USA)

Spellbound (Alfred Hitchcock, 1945, USA)

The Lost Weekend (Billy Wilder, 1945, USA)

The Day the Earth Stood Still (Robert Wise, 1950, USA)

The Thing from Another World (Christian Nyby, 1951, USA)

Forbidden Planet (Fred M. Wilcox, 1956, USA)

Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960, USA)

Torn Curtain (Alfred Hitchcock, 1966, USA)

Carnival of Souls (Herk Harvey, 1962, USA)

Blood Feast (Hershell Gordon Lewis, 1963, USA)

L’ucello dalle piume di cristallo (The Bird with Crystal Plumage) (Dario Argento, 1970, IT)

Il Gatto a nove code (The Cat O’Nine Tails) (Argento, 1971, IT)

Quattro mosche di velluto grigio (Four Flies on Grey Velvet) (Argento, 1972, IT)

The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973, USA)

Profondo Rosso (Deep Red) (Dario Argento, 1975, IT)

Suspiria (Dario Argento, 1977, IT)

Dawn of the Dead (George A. Romero, 1978, IT/USA)

Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978, USA)

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1975, USA)

Eraserhead (David Lynch, 1977, USA)

The Last House on the Left (Wes Craven, 1972, USA)

Sisters (Brian De Palma, 1973, USA)

It’s Alive (Larry Cohen, 1974, USA)

Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1977, USA)

Carrie (Brian De Palma, 1976, USA)

Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979, USA/UK)