Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails in 1994
Photo: Paul Natkin/Getty Images
A Halloween Riddle: What Makes A Song Scary?
It's Halloween, and scary is everywhere: scary costumes, scary decorations, scary movies and scary music. But what makes music scary?
Most would assume that "scary" is pretty subjective: a feeling unique to the feeler. But our world is increasingly ever-determined to boil emotion down to ones and zeros. Enter Pandora's latest seasonal science project to determine what makes a song scary and, not content to stop there, create a list of the top 10 scariest songs of all time, just in time for Halloween.
According to Pandora's blog, they used "a combination of Pandora's sophisticated Music Genome Project technology, listener behaviors and findings from Pandora’s data science team" to collect a trove of data—drawing from over 450 musical attributes—to identify the scariest songs ever." The blog added, "scary songs [that] use key, tempo and timbre to create tension and manipulate the way the listener interacts with sound. This includes the use of what scientists call "non-linear" sounds, which are generally scratchy, disorganized and chaotic—like the sound of vocal chords vibrating violently during a blood-curdling scream."
Pandora ultimately gave their No. 1 spot on the Scary Songs List to Nine Inch Nail's nailbiter "The Becoming," from their GRAMMY-nominated 1994 industrial-rock classic, The Downward Spiral. The song seems tailor-made for Pandora's criteria. "This unsettled mood is amplified by the terrifying sound of the alternating hushed/screaming vocals. Melodically, this song makes use of an exotic-sounding scale which features a major third, but a flat second scale degree, which gives an uneasy, dissonant quality," it reads.
However, the system isn’t perfect. For instance, it's difficult to be afraid of the dated-and-gated snare drum reverb trails on Pixies’ “The Happening,” which ranks No. 2 on Pandora’s terrifying list, likely for its dissonant vocal section. Bauhaus’ aplty titled “Dark Entries” also seems innocuous enough, though it makes the cut at No. 3 for its "tonal quality of the instruments, including distorted riffs and scratchy guitar solos. There is a high level of dissonance between the chromatically descending guitar line and the vocal, which is not a melody exactly, but a series of monotonic, almost unrelated pitches that clash with the accompaniment."
Perhaps fittingly, GRAMMY winner James Maynard Keenan shows up twice on the list with Tool and A Perfect Circle, but the sleigh bells in APC's “Thinking Of You” slightly undermine its ability to strike terror. Tool’s terrifying “Ænima” clocks in at No. 6 just after Lamb Of God’s “Contractor” at No. 5, both receiving high scores for their “aggressive, confrontational vocal attitude" on what turns out to be a metal-heavy list.
But organizing music by "mood," a business where streaming services are making a killing, can be a lot like organizing books by size (to borrow an analogy from Alain de Botton), as it flattens the dimension of music into a sort of sonic wallpaper. The practice serves a purpose, but it's that of curating background music for working at a coffee shop, exercising at the gym or other activities that can benefit from musical backdrop. But scary is especially ill-suited for this type of reduction, as it is an unignorable feeling that thrives on the dynamic range between safety, anticipation, anxiety, and personal fear, which isn't always as straightforward as science. Take films like Jaws or Blair WItch Project, which became classics for the paranoia they created without resorting to gore. Or consider the old (but true) cliche choice for scariest song, "Thriller," which scared a generation because of it's cultural significance and masterpiece music video, not necesarily it's high dissonance rating.
Here are the songs this writer won’t listen to while driving dark backroads at night: PJ Harvey’s haunting dirge “Down By The Water,” Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds’ murder ballad “Song of Joy,” or Neurosis’ soundscape of hell, “Rehumanize.”
What are the scariest songs ever? Ahead of #Halloween, @pandoramusic's data scientists analyzed thousands of songs to come up with an answer. Spoiler alert: @Tool, @nineinchnails, @aperfectcircle, @Korn, @lambofgod, @WhitechapelBand made the cut. https://t.co/cPBG3owXA1
— Revolver Magazine (@Revolvermag) October 30, 2019
Pandora's experiment of horror is an interesting one, although even the good people behind the project admit scary is truly a personal taste. Loudwire dug deeper, interviewing the project's data scientist Erik Schmidt and Director of Music Analysis Steve Hogan to ask the question: "What, personally, is the cariest song you've ever heard?"
"Hands down, the most terrifying piece of music I've ever heard is a 1961 composition by Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki called "Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima," Hogan said. "This piece is written for 52 strings, and is nearly 10 minutes of "nails on the chalkboard" dissonance. It triggers my primal fear response like nothing else I've ever heard. It has been used in David Lynch's Twin Peaks, and also in Wes Craven's 1991 horror film The People Under the Stairs."
Now that's scary.