We all recognize it: the double-note half-step exchange that signals impending doom. It is the world-famous Jaws theme, of course, composed by John Williams. What is it about this theme that lends itself to the horror of an approaching man-eating shark? Is it the simplicity? Is it the lack of finality in the progression? Maybe it is the sheer anticipation of the following dissonant chord telling our brains that something really awful is happening.
The placement of soundtracks and ambient noise can really make or break our experience of movies; but I specifically want to talk about horror. In fact, it is difficult to imagine what classic blockbusters such as Jaws would be like without their accompanying scores. The entertainment industry is obsessed with the full-immersion of the self, which means appealing to and utilizing all of the human senses--hence the popularity of the 3-D film. So it should come as no surprise to anyone that the use of audio has a complex background which ties directly into how we experience sound in tandem with imagery.
Fortunately, this is a huge and concentrated subject. Unfortunately, it may take several discussions to even break the surface of said subject. As such, this initial entry will serve as an introduction to some basic ideas, that I will delve into over the course of the next few months.
Advances in science suggest that certain types of music and sound affect your mood. This is a hot topic at its core, but it is sufficient to say, your brain will react much differently to a minor chord than it will to a major chord. Musical dissonance creates uneasiness in a scene, which puts the audience on edge. Perhaps one of the most well-known examples of musical dissonance is the shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho. Bernard Herrmann's score slams the audience with a series of high-pitched dissonant chords that completely push this scene over the edge, thus making it one of the most world-renowned scenes in all of cinema. Funnily enough, Hitchcock's original vision for this scene called for complete silence, but reconsidered upon insistence from Herrmann to employ the use of the screeching string arrangements, further intensifying the mood. And we are very glad he did.
So, what about a lack of soundtrack? There are a number of films that rely upon audio-deprivation, which can be just as effective as dissonance. In fact, a good portion of the old classic monster movies did not originally involve the use of a soundtrack; many added scores later on. The effect is that the atmosphere becomes bleak, which can be very valuable to a horror film. You tend to pay more attention to the dialogue, and to noises heard both on-and-off-screen. A good example of a film lacking any conventional "soundtrack" to speak of is Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds. Hitchcock instead opted to use occasional source music and sound effects.
There is one final point I would like to make in this introductory entry: timing is everything. Whether a dissonant chord, a prolonged silence, or a screeching sound effect, the placement of these elements is as key to their effectiveness as the filming itself. I look forward to delving into the nitty-gritty of exploring the complexity of audio elements in film, and I hope that you will enjoy my discoveries, as well as add to the discussion with some of your own thoughts.
If you would like to see any sub-topics in particular covered, please feel free to mention in the comments. Thank you for reading!