Key concepts
Musical instruments
Do you enjoy watching scary movies at Halloween, or going to haunted houses? In whatever way you might want to have a thrilling experience this time of year, spooky sounds and music will likely play an important part. One of the things that makes a haunted house or a mysterious movie so eerie is the soundtrack that goes along with it—all the noises orchestrated to raise the hair on your arms, make you shiver and leave you with little doubt that there are things unknown lurking about. In this science activity, you will investigate what goes into the composition of a perfect creepy soundtrack.  
Music is a big part of a movie or a theatrical experience. You might not notice it immediately, but music adds layers of richness to the visual experience of a movie, and it enhances the storytelling by increasing emotions or tension in a scene. Scary things feel scarier with the right music. For example, by intensifying emotions, the music makes it so that you don't just jump when that hairy spider comes around the corner—you scream!
There are several different aspects of music that can make it feel eerie or convey a different emotion to us. The musical instruments involved can be important here. For example, percussion instruments such as drums or cymbals make a very different sound than string instruments such as violins or cellos, or horns such as trumpets. The pitch of the melody—high-pitched like bird songs or low-pitched and deep-sounding—and whether it is generally rising or falling also affects how we feel about the music. The music's key (such as whether it is minor or major), tempo (or speed) and volume are other musical components that can each convey different messages to the listener.

  • Age-appropriate children's Halloween movie, such as (depending on the age): The Nightmare Before Christmas, Beetlejuice, Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, Coraline, Pooh's Heffalump Halloween Movie, Hocus Pocus, Labyrinth, Casper, The Witches, Corpse Bride or one of the Harry Potter series. Alternatively, instead of a movie you could use creepy classical and/or movie tracks (from a CD or available online), such as Johann Sebastian Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, Modest Mussorgsky's Night on Bald Mountain, Edvard Grieg's In the Hall of the Mountain King, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Requiem Mass or movie soundtracks by Danny Elfman or John Williams.
  • Timer or stopwatch for determining the tempo of the music (optional)
  • Pencil or pen and paper (optional)
  • Get your Halloween movie ready to watch. If you have time you could plan on watching the entire movie, or you could find a few favorite scenes to watch. To do this activity, you will want to listen to at least 20 seconds from at least three different eerie or scary scenes in the movie. Alternatively, if you are using song tracks instead of a movie, get the music ready to play your favorite songs. You will want to listen to at least three songs.
  • Watch each eerie or scary movie scenes that you picked (or listen to each song track) while paying close attention to how the music sounds. The following steps will help you analyze the music. You may need to listen to the music a few times for each scene or song track—or for the full movie or composition.
  • Try to figure out which main musical instruments are being used. Do you hear mostly percussion instruments such as the banging of drums or clash of cymbals, string instruments like violins or cellos, big brassy trumpets and other horns, or people singing? Feel free to jot down notes as you go along.
  • Focus on the melody. Is the melody high-pitched like bird songs or low-pitched and deep-sounding? Are there rising or falling scales? (A rising scale is like the sequence "do-re-me-fa-so-la-ti-do" and a falling scale is the reverse.)
  • Try to listen to the key of the music. A minor key might sound sadder or more serious to you, while a major key might sound more cheerful. (An example of a minor-key song is "My Favorite Things" from the movie The Sound of Music, while "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" is an example of a song typically sung in a major key.) Is the music in a minor or major key?
  • Now count the beats per minute (bpm), or tempo, of the music. If you want, you can tap or clap out the beats yourself for 10 seconds and then multiply by six to get bpm. A slow tempo may be less than 70 bpm, while a fast tempo may be greater than 110 bpm. Does the music have a relatively fast tempo or a slow one? If you are watching a movie, how does the tempo relate to what's happening in the movie?
  • Also pay attention to the volume of the music. Is it quiet or loud? If you're watching a movie, how does the volume relate to what's happening?
  • Overall, what do varied examples of eerie or scary music have in common? How are they different?
  • Extra: Repeat this activity but this time use several different movies (and at least five scenes from each movie) to investigate many types of emotional scenes. Listen to see whether certain musical features typically accompany specific types of scenes, such as action, happy or sad scenes. Do action scenes usually have the same type of tempo? What about happy and sad scenes—how does the music change with the different types of scenes?
  • Extra: Get some volunteers and play them short segments of music from different types of movie scenes (without letting them see the actual movie scene). Ask the volunteers what type of scene they think the music accompanies. How accurate are the volunteers? Is there overlap between types of scenes? For example, did some of your volunteers think music from a happy scene belonged in an action scene, or that music from a sad scene belonged in a scary scene?

Observations and results
Was the eerie or scary music usually in a minor key, with a relatively high-pitched melody? Did it build up tension by changing from quiet and slow to louder and faster?
There is a lot of variation in what makes up spooky music, but there are some common themes in movie soundtracks and classical pieces. The music is typically played in a minor key. For music to sound creepy or eerie, it might also be relatively quiet and slow, which can build up unsettling tension in the listener. Then at a scary or intense moment, the music may become much louder, faster and increase in pitch, possibly with a rising scale. Higher-pitched melodies and musical instruments, such as strings and children singing (without using distinct words), are often used for these scary scenes—but other instruments, such as horns and pianos, are sometimes employed too.
More to explore
Glossary for Music Appreciation, from City College of San Francisco
Does a minor key give everyone the blues?, from Nature
Movie Music, from Science Buddies
Sounds Like Halloween, from Science Buddies

This activity brought to you in partnership with Science Buddies