Kuala Lumpur, October 30, 2013 – Today, leading music service Spotify released Music To Your Fears, a playlist of songs that fit a biological script for scaring listeners, ensuring a scientifically spooky Halloween. From the screechy violin stabs during the Psycho shower scene to the menacing “DUH-dum, DUH-dum” of the Jaws theme, Spotify examined the musical elements that make people look over their shoulder – or skip the shower.
Spotify teamed up with UCLA researchers Daniel Blumstein and Greg Bryant and award-winning composer Jason Graves to explore exactly what makes music scary and curate a truly terrifying soundtrack to your Halloween. The answer to why these tunes chill us to the bone lies with our animal instincts; certain pieces grab our attention because they mimic the sounds of predators or their prey in distress, according to Blumstein, professor and chair for the UCLA Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, and Bryant, associate professor for the UCLA Department of Communication Studies.
While some might argue that “scary” is in the mind of the listener and not inherent to the music itself, Blumstein and Bryant urge that when it comes to biological wiring, it’s possible to feel scared when hearing certain sounds without actually being aware of it. It’s nature’s way of getting you to pay attention. 
“Music that taps into what I like to say is our ‘inner marmot’ can be scary,” says Blumstein, who first started studying fearful sounds when he heard baby marmots scream when caught. Animal screams, he asserts, occur when a voice is overblown – like when music through a speaker is pushed to the limit – resulting in nonlinear sounds that come across as distorted, frequency-shifting and grating. These “nonlinearities” are common in music that is intended to spook us, particularly music composed for horror films.
Composers also unsettle listeners by including clusters of “aleatoric” music, or music that isn’t defined by chords or structured melodies and therefore takes on an eerie, unpredictable quality.
“It’s the fear of the unknown – the psychological build-up to the ‘boo!’” says Graves, who composed spooky scores for the video games Dead Space and Tomb Raider. “And the more unknown, the better.”
Here is the list of scare-your-pants-off tracks on Spotify’s Music to Your Fears playlist, along with expert commentary from Daniel Blumstein and Jason Graves:
- The Murder – Bernard Herman (Psycho)
Shrieking violins heard during the famous shower scene in Psycho contain rapidly changing frequencies and amplitude fluctuations, characteristics of sounds produced by individuals under extreme duress.
- Main Title and First Victim – John Williams (Jaws)
The low frequency of those famous violin strings signalling the great white’s approach reflects the idea that in nature, big animals produce deep sounds. “The bigger the animal the lower the frequency, and we are wired to be afraid of big things,” says Blumstein.
- Threnody, “Victims of Hiroshima” – Krzysztof Penderecki
At the 53-second mark, this piece illustrates “fear of the unknown” and aleatoric music. The musicians “tap, pluck, bow and scrape their strings into a frenzy; some people describe the sound as insects, others hear rats,” says Graves.
- Lacrimosa – Jason Graves (Dead Space 2)
Sudden shifts in register and unexpected sounds create a feeling of uncertainty that cause you to pay attention to your surroundings. Creepily, the repeated sequence of notes played in the piece are D,E,A,D.
- Musica Ricercata , II – Mesto, rigido e cerimoniale – Dominic Harlan (Eyes Wide Shut)
The dissonant intervals you hear in this piece are unpleasant to the ear and are associated with the sound of a human in distress. Graves notes the piano is played “without emotional intent” which makes the piece very cold.
- The Scavenger’s Den – Jason Graves (Tomb Raider)
To score the latest installment of Tomb Raider, Graves worked with sculptor Matt McConnell to create a 9-foot-tall sculpture that made a variety of unusual, tormenting sounds. “It goes back to the unknown,” says Graves, “and coming up with sounds that made people uncomfortable.”
- The Dream of Jacob – Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra (composed by Penderecki)
The piece is full of nonlinear sounds which put the listener on edge. Upping the fear quotient is the lack of a single relatable pitch for our brains to latch onto: “Everything is sliding around… the musical equivalent of being nauseous or seasick,” adds Graves.
- Dies Irae – Stanley Kubric (The Shining)
This classical piece re-recorded for The Shining features low frequencies which indicate big, scary animals may be lurking. Look out! Parts of the track also sound like a whale song, which in nature is a strange, spooky sound.
- Tubular Bells – Mike Oldfield (The Exorcist)
For many, it’s hard to separate the film from the music, but the instability of the notes in this piece could be tied to perceiving instability or distress in a voice, which indicate a potential threat.
- No Teeth No Bite – Marco Beltrami (World War Z)
The impure, quivering, muddled nature of the notes could indicate stress or ill-health in the wild. Blumstein points out healthy animals make pure sounds, and that we instinctively fear sick creatures.
 2010 study on arousal in music: