The shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho."
Hinting at signs of a great white shark nearby in Steven Spielberg's "Jaws."
When serial killer Michael Myers is on the hunt (for you) in John Carpenter's "Halloween."
The music in these films adds to the emotions for the viewers. To most, it's just plain scary.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Charlotte Observer
Neil Lerner has an understanding of the history behind "scary" music.
The 43-year-old has been a music professor at Davidson College for 14 years. He also examines music in television and video games, but the study of horror films has given him unique insights.
"I've never had a real problem pushing the envelope," the Davidson resident said. "We're a violent society and horror films are a symptom of that. People have long had a fixation for looking at this really nasty stuff, whether in an ancient Greek play or an Elizabethan revenge tragedy. But it's always been important to me that my research speak to an audience. That's why studying film music was such an obvious place to go for me."
Lerner earned his undergraduate degree in music and English from Transylvania University in Kentucky, which, incidentally, was founded in 1780, more than 100 years before Bram Stoker wrote his famous novel, "Dracula." He obtained his doctorate in musicology from Duke University.
He also is the contributing editor for "Music in the Horror Film: Listening to Fear." The recently released text book will be used at universities and colleges in film, music and English classes. It contains a series of essays about music in horror films made between 1931-2000 - from Rouben Mamoulian's "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" to M. Night Shyamalan's "The Sixth Sense."
Lerner's chapter in the book examines how Mamoulian's 1931 version of "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" was far ahead of its time, using "sound design" to frighten the audience before that was even a term.
"But it's arguable that these sounds are music," he said. "They have a definite shape, making them organized sounds, which composer John Cage gave as a definition of 'music.' So, in that way, the sounds are very forward-looking to things non-film composers don't really start to do until the '50s and '60s."
The films "Dracula" and "Frankenstein" also came out in 1931 but weren't as musically interesting to Lerner.
"It was the early moments of sound cinema, and filmmakers were not yet using music to underscore psychological refinements or set a mood," he said. "That was a few years to come. But in 'Jekyll and Hyde,' the first time he transforms, it just blew me away when I heard it. And some of the visual effects are just as stunning, especially for 1931. For the equipment they had, it was just really incredible filmmaking."
Some trend-setting techniques used included filming candlelight and transferring it to the audio portion of the film, recording the director's heartbeat, and using the fading sound of a gong played in reverse. Director Mamoulian called it a "sound stew."
Lerner, who played piano and bassoon as a kid, didn't develop an interest for musicology until after college. He said the field began in the 19th century and was first geared toward studying manuscripts as a way of understanding music history. His doctoral dissertation focused on music in documentary films.
Lerner has published research on a wide variety of films, including early epics like "The Birth of a Nation" and the Western "High Noon" to science fiction classics "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" and "Star Wars." He also edits a book series called "Music and Screen Media," which soon will publish two more editions: one on music in television and one on music in Western films.
Film music is a scholarly topic that's getting more popular.
"The whole study of music in film and media is suddenly exploding," said Lerner. "The essayists often use the music as a launching point to make broader cultural statements.
"Horror film has always gotten a fair amount of attention from film scholars, and it's always been a pretty successful, popular genre, even though it's so sketchy and disreputable to some people. But it's low-budget, high-profit - everything the industry loves. And for scholars, it's been a genre where the filmmaker can bring up taboo topics, but do it under the guise of having a monster."
With roots in church music, Renaissance madrigals, opera and symphonic music, horror film music is just one chapter in music history, and there certainly is a science behind it.
Take the stinger, for example: that sudden, surprising blast of sound. Low notes also are perceived as more threatening, and it probably can be traced backed to our predator-vs.-prey-nature (the foot stomps of something chasing you), or to our relationship with the rumbling of natural forces like thunderstorms, volcanoes and earthquakes.
"There are certain basic elements that do tend to surface over and over," he said. "Unresolved dissonances or sustained dissonance - two notes that don't sound good together - and having that hold out will create tension. It's unstable, something's not right."