November 20th 2017
November has brought me to the second item on my composition agenda: Horror Film Motif. After finishing the Jeff Beal pastiche I sought out my cinephile and horror-enthusiast friends for some suggestions on horror film reference material, and was given much to listen to! So I’ve spent November listening to many horror film soundtracks, and attempting to configure VST plugins for the first time. After much research into the vast potential of film and game composers’ toolkits, I’ve realized that along this career path I will eventually need to invest in some higher quality sound sample libraries, and master the use of these various plugins and sound libraries. I invested in a few new thrifty sound packs, including “Scary Strings” from Spitfire Audio which I thought would be perfect for this horror motif composition task. What I hadn’t realized was the pack is only a demo unless I have the full license for the Kontakt plugin, which unfortunately remains a little out of my price range at the moment. So this latter task of taking the first step towards implementing new sound libraries was, for now, unavailing. I’ve asked a friend who is a great deal more proficient in this realm to give me a tutorial soon, so I’m hoping in the near future to at least find some economical way of utilizing what VST plugins and sample libraries are available at a low cost.
In any case, back to the horror film motif. From listening to various horror soundtracks, there are assuredly certain common techniques intended to instill fear and unease in the listener. Some techniques are obvious; consider the use of dissonant intervals such as minor 2nds and tritones. Other techniques are weaved into the score more subtly; tone, pitch-bending, instrumentation, articulation, dynamics, time signature, and melody can all be used very effectively to provoke a sense of fear. I listened to a bunch of different soundtracks, but I’ll just briefly discuss here the ones that had a significant or particular effect on me.
The first thing I listened to in my research endeavor was the score to It Follows, a seriously unsettling soundtrack. This score definitely manages to instill a sense of unease and a slowly rising panic. Tone plays a large part, as disturbing noises and dissonant intervals swell in conjunction with a relentless static sound. There is also a rhythmic pattern reminiscent of Bernard Herrmann's Psycho theme, in that a harsh, stabbing dissonance hammers unforgivingly on the downbeats, evoking intense distress. Rick Beato has a great video on Bernard Herrmann in which he analyzes the Psycho murder scene motif. Herrmann cleverly uses a dissonant cluster of notes in the strings, but spreads them out across two octaves, always hammering relentlessly on the downbeats, almost aurally “stabbing” the viewers ears as Janet Leigh’s character is literally being stabbed.
I also particularly like the opening title theme to American Horror Story, which comprises loud, aggressive bursts of noise carried by a simple and recognizable bass line. The theme is adapted to fit with the subsequent seasons, but always maintains the distinguishable bass line. For example, season 4 of the show is title American Horror Story: Freakshow, and its theme uses the juxtaposition of light-hearted xylophone sounds and a playful melody that hints at something dark dwelling just beneath the surface. It also begins with xylophone sounds played backwards, lending a hand to the eeriness. This theme fits perfectly for the “creepy clown” motif that the season evokes. This is one example of the clever use of juxtaposition for a horror motif, something that’s less blaring and outright “scary,” instead having a “playful” edge on the surface, hinting at something darker, instilling an eerie sense of creepiness.
When I first heard the theme to Halloween, I was immediately struck by it. It is so concise, simple, and memorable, and made just slightly off-putting by the 5/4 time signature. I honestly find this to be a brilliant theme by John Carpenter. The use of 5/4 and the minor sixth interval give its haunting edge, yet it is so succinct and recognizable, that anyone – even people with no musical knowledge or expertise – can remember it and at least hum it. I see this as a continual challenge in composing for visual media; finding the perfect balance between being simple/memorable and being profound/evoking the right emotion(s).
Music is often (if not always) about tension and release. But is there such thing as infinite tension? One motif that tries to answer this question is Hans Zimmer’s theme for the Joker in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. One of the lessons in Zimmer’s Masterclass focuses on this theme; rather than use classic “evil chords” for the Joker’s motif, he uses one single note on a cello, an ominous and steadily increasing tension that never truly “releases.” Slowly and steadily the listener becomes more and more tense, with no “resolution.”
So then, what have I concocted for a horror film motif of my own? Well, in the interest of showcasing variety on my website here, I decided to include three separate horror motifs. I’ve tried to incorporate various techniques discussed above, such as odd time signatures, dissonant intervals, conciseness and memorability, piercing rhythms on the downbeats, etc. Once I get to reorganizing the layout of my portfolio page, the idea is that for sections such as “horror,” there will be multiple examples of my work in order to showcase various subgenres. So here are my three horror motifs:
Firstly, there is ambient horror:
Then there is thematic horror, influenced partly by the Halloween motif:
Then there is aggressive horror, taking after the “stabbing” dissonance that the Psycho theme so successfully executes:
What else have I been up to? Well, I’ve still been reading through Chance Thomas’ book Composing Music For Games, I'm now on the chapter on business. He talks about a composer's "storefront," citing a couple examples of contrasting game composer portfolios, which is evidently helpful for my research. He cites Kevin Riepl and Rich Vreeland, whose websites have noticeably different aesthetics, but which accurately portray the respective types of music these two composers create. So as I scour the internet for more examples of composer portfolios, with the intent of identifying common desirable elements, I’ve also come to realize that I need to find the right aesthetic that portrays my own personal style. I need to think about how best this website can pitch Elijah Fisch as a viable composer for visual media.
Lastly for this post, here are some of the resources I’ve gathered in my initial efforts for research and reference material for this project:
- Samuel Adler’s The Study of Orchestration (3rd edition)
- Rick Beato’s YouTube playlists: Everything Music, Film Scoring, Music Theory and Composition
- James Brunner & Bryan Mosley’s podcast titled Pixelated Audio, A Video Game Music and Retro Gaming Podcast
- Alfred Publishing’s Symphonic Suite From The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, composed by Howard Shore. This will be especially helpful for my next composition task: pastiche of Shore’s Fellowship of the Ring
- Chance Thomas’ Composing Music for Games: the art, technology and business of video game scoring
- Hans Zimmer Teaches Film Scoring from Masterclass.com
- Game Audio Network Guild
- Global Composers Network
- Audiokinetic’s Wwise-101 Certification Course. Wwise is the leading “middleware” software used by game composers and audio designers for sound and music implementation in video games. This will help me tremendously in my efforts composing the music for Enthusiast Games’ Gravitas.
That’s all for now. Thanks for reading and stay tuned for my next composition task: pastiche of Howard Shore’s The Lord of the Rings soundtrack soundtrack. The themes I’ll try to tackle are Sauron/The One Ring, The Shire, The Treason of Isengard, and if time permits, the Rohan theme.