Why Is Scary Music Scary? Here’s the Science

According to a new study, songs like the 'Jaws' movie theme scare us by invoking a deeply ingrained instinctive response.

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What makes the suspense-building chords of the famous Jaws theme so scary? Those irregular minor chords trigger the same instinctual response a mama marmot feels when her babies are threatened.

A new study has found a connection between horror movie music and the screeches of young frightened animals. Researchers believe there are biologically-ingrained reasons why sudden, dissonant sounds and minor chords make us apprehensive. As a prime example, consider the iconic  theme from the 1975 Spielberg film Jaws:

The Jaws theme creates a sinister feeling of suspense with its chilling, crescendoing minor chords. In this original trailer for the film, the minor chords start slicing in at 0:33, then are followed by the big bad chord you hear as the innocent swimmer gets yanked under at 0:35, and the high-pitched chaotic sound of the lifeguard’s whistle.

It’s a textbook example of the kind of dissonant noise researchers examined in this study. Keep watching the clip: this trailer uses the same technique of sudden, jerky chords when the children get attacked at the beach and when the sailors battle the shark from the boat.

(MORE: Top 10 Unforgettable Shark Moments)

The leading scientist on the study, Daniel Blumstein, is an expert on animal distress calls. While studying yellow-bellied marmots in Colorado, Blumstein noticed that baby marmots often screamed when researchers caught them, he told NPR. In scientific jargon, such screams are classified as “nonlinear chaotic noise.” Blumstein first explored the link between such nonlinear noise and scary music in a 2010 study of movie soundtracks. He discovered that horror scores made heavy use of such sounds, and, in films like The Shining, even used recordings of animal screams, Discovery News reports.

Such nonlinear sounds — a dissonant chord, a child’s cry, a baby animal’s scream  — trigger a biologically ingrained response by making us think our young are threatened, according to Blumstein’s study, sponsored by the University of California at Los Angeles and published in the journal Biology Letters.

Blumstein teamed up with film score composer Peter Kaye and communications professor Greg Bryant to create music samples for the study. Kaye composed one set of musical clips meant to be emotionally neutral and another set that used “distorted” nonlinear elements, the study abstract explains.

(MORE: Top 25 Horror Movies)

Participants were asked to rate the music segments based on how emotionally stimulating they were and what kind of emotion they evoked. Just as Blumstein predicted, participants ranked the music with nonlinear elements more stimulating and linked it to strongly negative emotions such as fear.

Researchers also found that musical clips where the melodies suddenly became higher provoked greater emotional stimulation than moments when the notes suddenly went lower. This, Blumstein believes, may also be linked to the study of animal calls: a marmot’s scream goes higher when the marmot’s vocal cords go tenser, and this tensening would likely occur when the animal is scared.

In the next stage of the study, participants were asked to watch objectively boring videos (of activities like drinking coffee or reading a book) paired with the nonlinear music. Participants found the same distorted music much less emotionally stimulating (and much less scary) when it went along with a boring video. This finding suggests that visual stimuli may trump audio stimuli in prompting emotional reactions (and why the chord in the trailer might be more striking when it’s synced with the image of the girl getting yanked under).

When you hear a horror movie soundtrack–or, say, the sinister music used in a negative political campaign ad—know that it’s playing on your deepest biologically-engrained emotions. You might feel like you’re the mama marmot and those children getting attacked on the beach are your own babies.

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