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.


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Doo Wop (That Thing)

Lauryn Hill

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