You’ve probably heard about minor scales in music, and how they’re used to portray feelings of darkness and apprehension. (If not, read this!)
But melodies only make up half the story in music. What about the rhythm? Is it possible to evoke dark and scary emotions with patterns, phrasing, and time signatures alone? With Halloween just around the corner, there’s no better time to answer the all-important question: what makes a rhythm spooky?
Answering this question is a bit like hunting a ghost. You’re not too sure it exists, but you’re in it for the thrill of discovery. Let’s uncover some truths by looking at famous examples of spooky music:
Jaws (John Williams)
Exemplified by a simple alternating pattern of just two notes, the theme for Jaws instantly sends shivers down your spine. What makes the rhythm of this music so fear-inducing?
It begins with a sparse pattern of two notes per bar, with long rests adding to the suspense. Then the tempo starts to build. The rhythm becomes more regular but is accompanied by sharp off-beat bites to keep you on your toes.
It’s the space between the notes that builds anticipation. Just like how you don’t know when the shark will attack, you don’t know when the next notes are coming.
The Exorcist (Mike Oldfield)
Featuring a seemingly simple eighth-note pattern, what is it about this rhythm makes it so spooky? Let’s break down the complex arrangement of notes.
Instead of using different length notes and rests to create rhythm, The Exorcist Main Theme gains its rhythm through the arpeggiating pattern of notes. It’s actually the melody that gives this song its irregular rhythm.
Let’s look at the note E in this pattern, (the lowest note highlighted in green). Notice how it’s on the off-beat of the first bar, on beats 1-& and 2-&. Then it switches to an on-beat rhythm on beat 4, continuing into the second bar on beats 1 and 2. Then back to off-beats in bar three, etc.
Throw in some time signature changes for good measure, and this constant switching of rhythms generates ever-changing tension. You’re never quite sure what’s coming next, just like you’re never quite sure when the next jump scare is coming.
Halloween (John Carpenter)
We’ve seen how irregular rhythms can generate suspense and tension. Equally, regular rhythms can evoke similar feelings. The main theme for Halloween is backed by a straight quarter note pattern on each beat of the bar. So what makes it so spooky?
The unusual 5/4 time signature brings suspense. 4/4 time signatures feel natural and pleasing. 5/4 has one extra beat to every bar, giving it a strange and slightly uncomfortable feeling. The regularity of the rhythm is also akin to a heartbeat, giving the song a chilling sense of mortality.
So, what makes a rhythm spooky?
It’s complicated. There are elements of rhythm that can evoke dark and moody emotions. For example, irregular rhythms can build anticipation. Unusual time signatures and off-beats can generate tension.
The effect that rhythm has on your music is often overlooked, but there’s no doubt that rhythm is a powerful compositional tool. Having these tricks up your sleeve will help you invent new and interesting ways to portray emotions in your music.
Put it into practice.
Get inspired with these Melodics lessons. For the drummers out there, discover how to use unconventional phrase lengths in the context of a Spooky Surf Rock course.
Or learn about shifting off-beat kick patterns with these Scary Psychedelic Rock lessons.