Sounds Like… Suspense!

Illustration of Witch With Cat

Boo! Halloween is coming up, and we all know what that means: choosing a costume, going trick-or-treating, and picking out the biggest pumpkin in the patch. As you watch spooky Halloween movies and TV shows, you’ll certainly hear scary music, too.

But what makes music sound suspenseful?

In our blog, “How to Talk About Music,” we learned that music has a strong emotional component. Music can communicate different moods to listeners, just like books can communicate different moods to readers.

The TV show Scooby Doo, Where Are You! features many spooky tunes behind every mystery. Try to pay attention to the music in the background as you watch the clip below. What emotions does the music make you feel?

“Which Witch Is Which” episode clip from “Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!”

Ted Nichols, the composer behind the clip above, keeps the show’s audience on the edge of their seat by making the music sound suspenseful. Here are some different ways that composers achieve a suspenseful sound!

  1. Minor Keys

When a pianist plays a scale on a keyboard, they have to pay attention to a pattern of whole steps and half steps. Half steps are keys that are next-door neighbors on a keyboard, like a white key and a black key. Sometimes, two white keys can be half steps. For example, B and C are both white keys, but they’re half steps because the notes are touching. Whole steps are keys that have a note between them, like most white keys. For example, D and E are whole steps because there is a black key in between them, called D#.

If we nickname whole steps “W,” and half steps “H,” major scales all have the same pattern:

W, W, H, W, W, W, H

However, minor scales are a little bit different:

W, H, W, W, H, W, W

All because of this pattern, major scales sound cheerful to many people, but minor scales often sound melancholy and eerie!

Check out the two keyboards below. The blue dots represent the notes that are played. Both keyboards show scales that start on C. Can you figure out which scale is major, and which scale is minor?

2. Loud Dynamics

In the “Scooby Doo, Where Are You!” clip, the music makes a loud, brassy sound when the character Velma says, “Look! There’s someone up ahead!” Did that background music make the scene more suspenseful?

Music can sound intense or scary when composers add a sudden increase in dynamics, a term we use to describe the changes between loud and soft in music. When you hear a sudden loud sound, how do you think that contributes to a scary movie scene?

3. Dissonance

Dissonance can also make music sound suspenseful. We use the term dissonance to describe the sound of tension or clashing between notes. The opposite of dissonance is consonance, which sounds like two notes agreeing with each other.

In the video below, you can hear the difference between dissonance and consonance. If hearing dissonance in music makes you feel suspense, what does consonance make you feel?

Now that you’ve learned a little bit more about why music sounds scary, you can try to use some of the words that you learned above. Next time you’re watching a scary movie or suspenseful TV show, listen to the background music! How did the composer help communicate the emotions you’re feeling?