Terrifying Tones

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

“Music is surely among the most baffling of the arts in its power to move people profoundly whether or not they have any technical expertise or intellectual understanding of it. [A] few combinations of pitches, durations, timbres, and dynamic values can unlock the most hidden contents of a man’s spiritual and emotional being.” This observation, eloquently made by British musicologist Nicholas Cook, encapsulates music’s effect on the human spirit and psyche. For a variety of personal, cultural, psychological and physiological reasons, certain music induces us to certain states, regardless of how we feel prior to hearing it. This altering effect is most commonly linked to positive emotions, like uplift, invigoration, relaxation, catharsis and carefreeness. But music is just as capable of driving us to darker moods.

For evidence of this one needs look no further than the horror film genre. Horror movies are designed to elicit negative emotional reactions. A slew of visual tricks are used to draw out these feelings, from eerie lighting to macabre costumes to sickening gore. But the attentive viewer who has witnessed a horror scene on mute invariably asks some version of the question: How scary would a scary movie be without a scary score?

The horror genre exploits music’s terrifying potential to good advantage. Frequently, this is achieved using tools of twentieth-century modernism, such as dissonance, atonality, tritones, timbral experimentation, “stinger” chords and various extended instrumental techniques. It can also result from the discomforting juxtaposition of benign or even sweet tonal music on a scene of haunting imagery or brutal violence. The scary movie experience involves more than just voyeuristic “eyes watching horror,” as film scholar Carol J. Clover once put it. It includes tensed ears hearing fear.

Terrifying tones are not limited to frightening films, nor are they a recent discovery. If a dramatic scene in the Book of Judges is any indication, shocking music was a known and finely honed device in the ancient world.

Gideon, a Hebrew judge and military leader, positions his soldiers to attack the rival Midianites (Jgs. 7:15-23). At God’s behest, the text tells us, Gideon selects three hundred soldiers from his army of thousands to conduct the assault. It is insinuated that these men are not particularly courageous, imposing or militarily skilled. Rather, the fact of their weakness and pre-ordained victory is meant to demonstrate the power of God working through them.

Setting aside this theological message and looking at the events that transpire, one could argue that it is the force of sound—not an interventionist deity—that assures Israel’s victory. Gideon equips each soldier with a shofar and a jar containing a lit torch. The horn is for the right hand and the jar is for the left, leaving no place for conventional weaponry. Sound and pyrotechnics are their instruments of war.

The soldiers station themselves on a hill overlooking the Midianite camp. They wait for the middle night watch, when the enemy is most groggy and prone to being startled. With no forewarning and with orchestrated precision, they blow their horns and smash their jars, releasing the flames within. The entire camp is sent scrambling, screaming and fleeing in panic.

Given the unpredictable pitch and uneven quality of a shofar blast, the onslaught of three hundred at once would have been incredibly discordant. Add to this the magnitude of sound, its relentless droning and the accompanying flames, we begin to appreciate the alarming and intimidating effect. It was incidental music of a most diabolical kind, and a stark illustration of the dark side of musical expression.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

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