Manufactured Fear: How Horror Game Music Makes You Scared

After 12 issues of NitWitty, we’re finally taking a week off. But don’t worry – we’ve got you covered. This article originally appeared in Issue 3 : The Horror and is sure to keep you up an night. Enjoy!

Horror games work hard to make us feel scared. That’s kind of their whole deal. They’ll snatch away our weapons, strand us in claustrophobic locations, or pit terrifying monsters against us, all to get us quivering with fear. But all that’s kind of surface-level stuff. Truth is, things start getting scary way before you see your first zombie. More often than not, you’ll hear that something’s wrong way before you see it.

Music is used to affect us and enhance the way we experience many horror games. Whether it’s a frantic cacophony of thundering drums urging you to flee, or a hissing, dissonant noise lurking just below the surface of our awareness, horror game music has a tendency to seriously get under our skin. There are a number of ways they do this, but all have the same result: a scarier game experience.

Jill from Resident Evil, playing a grand piano.

Building a Foundation of Fear

All fear comes from nothing. We start at an internally stable state of mind and it’s only when we’re introduced to something discomforting, gross, or straight-up frightening that we begin to feel the fear. Horror game music works best when it builds you up to that fear and pushes you into a panicked response.

Think about it – the best horror games want to make the most of your time, and that means scaring you in meaningful ways. Jump scares work great for in-the-moment surprises, but the really memorable parts, the ones that creep from the back of your mind when you’re lying awake at night, are the parts that were built up over time. They’re the parts that started off at a simmer and eventually boiled over. Music helps “turn up the heat” so to speak, so that when the big, scary reveal finally arrives, you’re already in full-on pants-wetting mode.

The Frightening Tradition of Musical Conventions

Horror games are a visual medium, just like film. Movies have been using musical scores to channel discomfort and suspense into audiences years before the first controller was invented. I’ll give you an example you might recognize:

This scene from Jaws is a classic example of music that builds tension. The scene has all the agonizing inevitability of a freight train, growing louder and more intense as the shark closes in on the swimmers. It drowns out the summertime revelry of other beach-goers, and the tension builds and builds before finally reaching its gory crescendo. Horror music in games has an added layer of tension because instead of merely watching a scene like the one from Jaws, you’re getting down and dirty playing the thing.

The music in Alien: Isolation builds fear using those same traditional musical conventions. As you make your way around the space station Sevastopol, you get used to the sounds of your environment: the beep and whir of retrofuturistic tech, the hollow thud of your footsteps against the metal grate floor, the distant voices of enemies searching for you. But when you first encounter the xenomorph creeping down from the ceiling one appendage at a time, you start hearing something else – a sound like a hellish strings section warming up for a symphony.

It isn’t caused by any part of the station; it’s not an environmental part of the sound design. It’s part of the game’s soundtrack, and it begins to completely overtake your senses as you try to sneak across the room without coming face to face to mouth-face with the alien. This music steadily increases in volume as you come closer to danger, and is designed to break that familiarity you made with your earlier surroundings. It introduces an actual alien element to the game that does not exist within the game world itself, but you don’t notice it because you’re so focused on not getting killed.

Does the music make this a surprising moment in the game? Maybe, maybe not; Alien is in the title of that the game after all. But is the music effective in making the gameplay tense and scary? Absolutely. It isn’t the presence of the music that is the scary part, but perhaps rather how it sounds.

The Notes Themselves

So what actually makes horror game music scary? Is it the context of the situation you’re in, like expecting (and receiving) a xenomorph encounter in Alien: Isolation? That might be partly the reason, but another more interesting explanation may have to do with the musical notes themselves.

When we listen to music, we hear two kinds of notes: consonant notes and dissonant notes. Notes that we perceive as consonant sound nice and sweet, while dissonant notes sound unpleasant and harsh. These are generalizations obviously, since music is a completely subjective topic, however, these perceptions are based on centuries of musical standards. Basically, our ears have been trained to process certain notes as weird, creepy, or uncomfortable. So when we play horror games that make our flesh crawl, it could be because we’re hearing the music’s use of dissonance to create a jarring, unpleasant experience.

Believe it or not, dissonance didn’t start with horror game music. Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” caused a full-blown riot when played live in Paris, 1913. Yes, the same “The Rite of Spring” from Disney’s Fantasia. Sources say the riot could have been caused by a number of reasons, from the herky-jerky stomping of the ballet dancers to the class clash between the wealthy and Bohemian sections of the audience. However, it’s said that the trouble began from the “strangled bassoon melody” in the introduction. This piece is a case study in bombastically styled dissonance; one onlooker said it best: “The music always goes to the note next to the one you expect.”

Going back to horror games, listen to “Silent Heaven” from Silent Hill 2. Composer Akira Yamaoka could have called this track “Dissonance City” for its unnerving, atmospheric piano chords followed by plodding, echoing synths. While not as energetic as Stravinsky’s “Rite,” the track almost seems to follow a similar stumbling motion in accordance with where the fingers are located on the piano keys. However, horror both plods and sprints, as this other Yamaoka-penned track exhibits:

“Ain’t Gonna Rain” from the first Silent Hill shows the more aggressive side of dissonance. An angry barrage of sixteenth notes clashes together to make a hectic and violent sensation. You could argue that it isn’t really music at all, that it’s just noteless noise meant to upset you. But consider the most recognizable piece of music from Hitchcock’s Psycho. (You know the one, don’t even deny it.) “Ain’t Gonna Rain” uses that same kind of repeated, single sound dissonance to cause that sense of wrongness. It isn’t the first time dissonance is used to create horror, and it won’t be the last.

Acting on Impulse

Horror games often feature rich soundscapes that are intended to create unsettling atmospheres. Music often combines with these to push players into a panic, however, it can also be used to more overtly direct your actions. This happens all the time in first person shooter horror games, where overconfidence can take you from frightened and flighty to bona fide freaked. Case in point: System Shock 2.

You’re a government agent investigating a starship, trying to solve the grisly fate of its crew. As you unlock new sections of the ship, you acquire a few weapons to put the hurt on the mutants prowling the corridors. With your new arsenal, the action starts to pick up, and you’re treated to several music tracks that capture the game’s high-tech, cyberpunk setting. They start out as simple, looping melodies that gradually build into energetic electronica and trance tracks.

At first these pieces seem like a departure from the suspenseful air of mystery the game establishes earlier, but they actually serve a much more devious purpose: they provide you with a sense of urgency, as you’re driven into action by their pulsing beats. The music in these sections aren’t just making you feel something, they’re making you want to act. The game wants the music to break your concentration, cause you to take risks and make mistakes, and have you fall into the clutches of a mutant mob.

Here’s another example from the first Resident Evil. The sudden sound of breaking glass is scary enough, but it’s the fast-paced drumming that really gets your pulse pounding, making you want to fight back. It’s pretty traditional hectic battle music, but dissonant piano chords are repeated at the first note of each measure to add that extra layer of texture and tension.

Maintaining an atmosphere is important to horror games like Resident Evil and System Shock 2, so music isn’t always present. But in cases like these, they can take a more active – and more diabolical – role in the gameplay experience.

Embrace the Beauty of Horror Game Music

Music soundtracks are a wonderful thing in general, but the added effects of horror game music takes these games to another level. Whether the music is making you feel nervous, edge-of-your-seat tension or flat-out uvula-rattling horror, the great thing is that these tunes are used in a variety of ways to enhance the game and direct your brain into a more fearful state.

Now, you can totally train yourself to recognize these subtle cues. As stated, the musical conventions that make scary music scary can be studied and dissected. If you pull enough all-nighters you might render yourself immune to the wiles of a carefully crafted horror game soundtrack. But although you might not be scared, at least now you can fully appreciate just how scary games can get when it’s the music that’s doing the scaring.

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Eric Seal

Eric Seal is a writer, drummer, gamer, husband, son, and father, and he can't decide which of these he likes best. Also writes fatherly musings at mostlymetaldad.com.

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