There are sounds through history that make the hair on our arms stand up: the “dun dun, dun dun” of John Williams’ famous Jaws theme or the eerie keys of John Carpenter’s Halloween track (fun fact: the director composed the song in an hour). These two masters used suspense to amplify the film’s plot and leave viewers in a psychological state of fear. We’re shuddering just thinking about it.
When October rolled around and Halloween decorations went up, we at Pandora were curious to find out what continues to make songs so creepy, and better yet, to identify the spookiest song of all time.
By using a combination of Pandora’s sophisticated analysis of music, the Music Genome Project, along with listener habits and Pandora’s data science team, we collected musical details — 450 attributes altogether — to identify the scariest song.
So, what goes into making a song sound sinister? It’s more than you think.
Scary songs 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” sound. Non-linear sounds are generally scratchy, disorganized, and chaotic, like the sound of vocal cords vibrating violently during a blood-curdling scream. Humans (and many other species) are hard-wired to perceive such sounds as life-threatening. The data science team identified structural and musicological properties best fit for frightening moods, including anguished, distraught, eerie, harsh, menacing, spooky, tense, anxious, and volatile, and scored each song against these traits.
Common attributes we found include that most of these songs are in minor key (we’ll get into the exceptions below), and they include use of distortion, sound effects, have an aversion to melody, and use exotic intervals and time change.
See below for a further look into each song, if you dare.
#1 Nine Inch Nails, The Becoming
- This song makes use of distorted “non-linear” instrument timbres and effects, which humans are programmed to find distressing. This contrasts with the hushed + screaming vocals which creates a suspenseful & unsettling mood. Melodically, this song makes use of an exotic-sounding scale, which features a major third, but a flat second scale degree, which gives a dissonant quality.
#2 Pixies, The Happening
- Like “The Becoming,” there is more use of distorted, “non-linear” sound along with aggressive vocal attitude, and this one is in a minor key, which is usually perceived as a “dark” sound.
#3 Bauhaus, Dark Entries
- The mood of this song is dominated by the 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. The lo-fi aesthetic and freaky vocal delivery make for an unsettling experience, like being chased through the woods by a chainsaw-wielding maniac.
#4 Joy Division, Transmission
- The combination of lo-fi production, synth pads, and an exaggerated reverb effect creates a menacing, claustrophobic quality. The song finishes with an intense wall of sound, which along with the staccato and insistent bass guitar rhythm makes this a truly anxiety-provoking track.
#5 Lamb Of God, Contractor
- Due to its sheer aggression, it’s a typical example of the death metal genre: it’s loud and distorted, includes a fast tempo, makes use of technically proficient drumming & guitar riffs, and is rhythmically complex in the form of shifting tempos and syncopated hits. The vocals are extreme and gritty and a good example of the “death metal growl.” Lyrically it’s confrontational and threatening.
#6 TOOL, Ænima
- Similar to the Lamb Of God in its aggressive, confrontational vocal attitude, Ænima also features loud distorted tones throughout. Still, there is some dynamic range too, with some quieter, more drone-like stretches.
#7 Nirvana, Heart-Shaped Box
- Like many Nirvana songs, this one defies pop conventions. The harmonic progression is difficult to pin down as major or minor, but there is an unmistakable dark and menacing quality to the music. There is a dissonance between the vocal melody and instrumental parts that is disorienting and can be a bit disturbing to the listener. It makes use of heavy, distorted tones, but also features quieter, brooding stretches.
#8 Korn, Bottled Up Inside
- This song relies on loud, distorted timbres, and some “non-linear” tones to create an aggressive, frightening effect that will transport you straight to the dungeon of despair. The relentless pounding of the drums and the deep, sludgy doom-guitar riffs give this song a truly menacing and diabolical feel.
#9 A Perfect Circle, Thinking Of You
- This song has a creepy combination of tones, including heavier distorted ones, alongside more ambient & suspenseful tones that will leave you convinced the demons are watching you. The melody at times makes use of an exotic-sounding scale that adds to the mood — the first two vocal notes you’ll hear from a “diminished 5th,” a musical interval which since the 18th century has been nicknamed “Diabolus in musica,” or “The Devil in music” due to its dissonant quality.
#10 Whitechapel, Eternal Refuge
- Eternal Refuge is another Death Metal entry, therefore it’s extreme in its volume and distortion, with that famous “death metal growl.” Try putting this on at home in the dark.