Horror Soundscapes: String Textures in Film

February 9, 2023
6 mins read

The role of an original score, whether for a film, TV series or video game, is vital within the story’s narrative. The music adds another layer to the visual narrative and communicates emotions that can’t necessarily be seen. One distinct musical technique we will dive into today is the string instrument’s classic gliding and tremor-like sound. It’s a haunting texture that can be found in most horror scores.

Why does this sound raise the hairs on our backs? Why does it sound so jarring? Many composers use this technique to add some fear factor to the sonic atmosphere. Let’s see why this technique always incites fear in a musical context.  

The String Family 

Firstly, let’s discuss the properties of the string family. In most film scores, strings are almost always included and can be the core of the instrumental body of the score. This could be in the form of live recordings of an orchestra or VST (Virtual Studio Technology) strings that are electronically produced. The string family, which primarily includes violins, violas, cellos and bass (also guitar), have a plethora of techniques that can help emulate specific emotions and narratives. From the long-sustained tones to the short and percussive-like bow strokes, these string instruments are a must in a composer’s instrumental arsenal.  

A violin and bow on a wooden desk lit up by a desk lamp.

Specifically, we are going to discuss the creepy sound world that the strings can generate. There are a few ways that composers can create this unsettling sonic environment, but we will discuss the gliding tremolo string texture that is a popular musical choice amongst film composers.  


String Sound Production 

Let’s focus on the most popular string instrument, the violin. It’s one of the core instruments in the string family and is a very versatile instrument. Out of all the orchestral string instruments, this one is considered the highest in pitch. Like all string instruments, it is played with a bow, so when it makes contact with the string, it vibrates to create a note.

This would be our fundamental tone. As it has a bow, it can make super long sustained notes, longer than when you strike a piano note. The decay time on a piano is much shorter and eventually dies away. If you keep the bow moving, bowing up and down, you will be left with a continuous tone (although don’t notate it for too long, otherwise, the violinist will have a dead arm).  

Other than sustained tones, the violin can make shorter notes. These are called staccato notes. These can be played very quietly to very loud and accented. A prime example of sharp accented staccato notes would be heard in the classic Psycho Shower Scene. Scored by the great Benard Herrmann, the violins are playing short, very loud and accented notes which sound very harsh. Furthermore, to make it more jarring, the harmony is very chromatic. This means it’s wildly dissonant, unlike the chords you hear accompanying a scene of romance or happiness.  


Glissando 

A prevalent technique used in horror scores is glissando. This is the motion of sliding your finger up and down the fingerboard without re-articulating the bow stroke. This results in a rising/descending effect in the pitch. Here’s a video example of two violas in action playing a piece entirely made out of glissandos!  

In horror soundtracks, glissando is a prevalent effect used to incite fear. If we apply this glissando effect at a high pitch, it closely resembles distant screams. Add some reverb and distortion, and the sound you end up with is pretty jarring.  

In the newly released remake of the video game Dead Space, the sonic environment is so dense and scary that it makes the playing experience incredibly intense. The original score, composed by Trevor Gureckis, is filled with instrumental techniques that will undoubtedly keep you on edge. There are so many metallic and supernatural sound effects, distinguishing the diegetic (in-game sound) from the non-diegetic (video game-composed music) can be very difficult.  

A stand-out feature of the music is the use of strings, particularly the high-pitched glissando. The effect it gives is close to mania. Due to the intensive nature of the game, having that jarring glissando that stands out from the industrial and supernatural sound drives tension to keep the player on edge. The Main Title Theme is a monster of a track; listen to those strings amongst the impenetrable orchestral sound mass!  

The tremolos don’t necessarily have to be high-pitched. There will be instances where the double bass (the lowest-sounding instrument of the string family) plays glissandos. Marco Beltrami’s score for A Quiet Place uses this technique in the cue It Hears You. The effect that the low glissando has is a sinking feeling, implying immediate danger is upon them. It also still has violin glissandos but notice how they are played slower. The slower the glissando, the more menacing due to the drawn-out pitch change that can be rather unsettling to the ear.  


Tremolo 

Tremolo is another excellent technique to enhance that fear factor within the film’s sound environment. The tremolo effect is when the player rapidly repeats one note to produce a trembling or wavering sound. This technique can be beneficial for moments of tension.  

Close-up of a violin.

The Batman movie, scored by Michael Giacchino, has some great uses of the string section. In his cue, It’s Raining Vengeance, the brass and timpani play this straightforward melodic idea. It’s a very low pitch; however, this is where the harmonic foundation is. What’s interesting about this part of the score is the texture that sits above, which is the strings.  

The strings are playing both tremolo and glissando passages. It creates this alarming sound mass. This goes the same for the Dead Space score. Furthermore, the strings aren’t all moving simultaneously, which creates even more dissonance. This mere addition of texture ultimately elevates the tension of the sonic environment. The cue gradually intensifies in volume and texture to a climax, disappears, and we hear this huge string glissando and tremolo build up that has zero absence of any melody.  

Jarring Harmonies 

Now we have established the physical techniques, let’s explore the harmonic roles within the horror genre.  

The many elements that create music are incredibly versatile, and many possibilities can emulate specific emotions. One of the essential elements of horror music is harmony. Harmony comes down to the relationship between the notes within the composition. When two or more notes are played together, they produce some form of harmony.

Depending on the intervals between the notes can denote what kind of harmony the music inhabits. Major harmony, for example, generally sounds happy and cheerful. Minor harmony, on the other hand, will be sad and more solemn.  

When we talk horror music, the harmony tends to fall under a minor sound. However, there are ways that the harmony can become even more sinister sounding. This is achieved by dissonant harmony.  

Dissonance is a type of harmony with a very harsh and unstable sound. Composers naturally use dissonant combinations of notes to create a harsher sonic world. In line with the haunting visuals, these uncomfortable combinations of frequencies to the ear all work together to create a terrifying and on-edge work of art.  

The score for Get Out by Michael Abels includes some very noticeable dissonant harmony. The Prologue has a moment that closely resembles that of Pyscho with the accented violin stabs. The two notes that are heard don’t sound, dare I say, “in harmony”. It sounds wrong. The interval (distance) between the two notes is called a tri-tone. This interval is a trendy one to use to create menacing passages. It sounds more unresolved than, say, a regular major or minor chord. What’s more fitting is that this interval is also known as the Devil’s interval.  

Mixing all of these techniques; the glissandos, fast and slow, and the quivering tremolos that ebb and flow throughout will result in an intimidating and disturbing sound world.  


Timbral Effects: Sul Ponticello 

To further stretch the dissonant harmony and playing techniques, some composers who work with orchestras or live musicians will sometimes instruct the string players to play sul ponticello. This is when the bow strokes are placed more towards the instrument’s bridge. This point of contact will provide an icy and unstable timbre. Additionally, this will allow very subtle yet effective harmonies to be heard among the fundamental tone being played.  

When playing any note, what we hear is the fundamental tone. All sounds will fall under what is called the harmonic series. Some overtones aren’t so noticeable to the human ear. When playing sul ponticello, the string vibrates differently. It enhances those higher harmonic overtones to ring out, which results in a very eerie and haunting sound.  

Composing an original score is already a massive task with mounds of responsibility. However, if you are an aspiring composer looking to create horror music, these techniques will certainly provide you with that haunting sound world.  


All images via Shutterstock.

For more on audio, check out these articles:

Zoe Sones

Zoe Sones, a UK-based composer, specializes in acoustic contemporary classical and ambient electronic music. She explores various textures and timbres from instruments and nature, creating haunting electronic drones and harmonically rich chords.