On a dark and stormy night...
...a lonely composer is trapped in their studio with a horrible monster! Composer’s block!!! (thundercrash)
In this entry, I will be talking about the art and techniques of composing a bit of fear into video game soundtracks. In a lot of my titles, there’s often a moment or two where the game calls for a jump-out scene or a thematic “Halloween” event. Having been asked to create a generous supply of cartoony, playful spooky music, to realistic shivers-down-your-spine horror moments on my game projects, I’ve learned a few tricks to scoring quality fright-tracks. While the level of terror has varied from project to project, at the core, there are some common thematic devices that just scream scare-me music.
Movies do an excellent job of creating a musical atmosphere just itching to get you to jump out of your skin. Whether it’s Halloween’s harrowing piano-plunking, Psycho’s psychotic violin stabs, or Danny Elfman’s many superb scary scores, Hollywood is a great place to look for horror music. Finding the right fit for your game is another matter, and it all boils down to two words: target audience. Older kids want to be scared when they play a Silent Hill, while a more casual audience wants to be tickled-pink when playing Plants vs Zombies. Despite the wide range of moods when describing a spooky song, there are a lot of common underlying themes that make great starting points for your haunting music.
A lot of the mood comes not from the notes or instruments, but from the tempo. A fun, spooky jaunt through a mystery/supernatural casual title benefits from an upbeat, but off-beat tune. Start with a simple 4/4 pattern but accent every other offbeat for a measure, then back to the main beats for the next. If your song is looking to be more atmospheric and less melodic, try creating a soundscape with competing, disjointed rhythms. For example, splash a fast accent beat sparsely over a steady, droning rhythm. Our ears are used to hearing patterns, and when it’s hard to get a fix on them, it creates tension and unease.
Instruments of Dread
Creating spooky music may be one of my more favourite genres, because it gives me great reasons to use extremely iconic instruments that may sound hackneyed in any other song type. Orchestral metal chimes are at this point overused, but still fit so perfectly for this style of music. One glissando and it will make anyone’s spine tingle. Pizzicato strings connote the tip-toeing, “please don’t get me, monsters!” feel. Xylophones instantly remind us of dancing skeleton bones, for which we likely have Warner Brothers to thank for that. Funeral bells (tubular bells) are a must. They literally mean “death”. Other strong considerations are organs, irish low whistles, a bassoon solo, synth strings, and anything with heavy vibrato.
Add a pinch of nightshade
Embellishing your score with spooky one-offs and riffs is a fun and effective way to round out your score.
- Pitch bends: Warping your winds and strings at the end of phrases helps create a haunting vibe.
- Jump-outs, dramatic pauses: Surprise your listeners by having a melody make an unexpected pause, then hit them with a cymbal crash to evoke a thunderclap.
- Metal workshop percussion: If you can invest in a decent metal workshop percussion sample set, there’s a lot of prepared pianos and twisted metal sounds that can really spook up your track.
- Reverb: Nothing says haunted ghosts and undead like a good use of reverb on your instruments. Be very careful with reverb, a little too much and everything turns to mush.
- Tremolo strings: Try layering a sample of tremolo strings over straight sustains, it makes a very eerie effect.
Parting thoughts… as the clock strikes midnight
Given all the eclectic elements that work to define spooky music, it’s best to take a large sample base and listen, listen, listen. Hear the commonalities for yourself and keep in a pile the types that may work for your game’s audio design. Remember to be creative and original in your scores, to only draw inspiration from sources. As always, there’s no handbook for the recently deceased to guide your spooky horror music, but hopefully this message from beyond the grave helps as a first-steps guide to haunt up your soundtrack!
Harry Mack is an audio designer with more than 10 years industry experience, composing video game music and sound effects for over thirty titles. Examples of his latest work and samples are available at www.harrymack.com.