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Can Song Lyrics Ruin a Scary Movie Moment?

By  · Published on March 29th, 2012

Song placement plays a very important role in a film ‐ a song can make you feel happy, sad, nostalgic or make you laugh. Scores can certainly do the same thing, but sometimes a well-placed song works better than any composed piece could. However this tact rarely applies to horror films, especially when leading up to a climatic moment or a jump scare. You can usually sense when these moments are coming ‐ the score becomes ominous, (or even drops out completely) causing your heart beat to quicken as you sense something terrifying is about to be revealed.

These moments are almost always driven by score and rarely (if ever) feature a lyric-filled song. And this choice makes sense since lyrics would probably distract from the suspense of the moment instead of drawing it out and, in turn, drawing you into the horror. For horror films, songs with vocals are usually left for party scenes or if a character on screen happens to be listening to the radio, but they are rarely placed within the scene to underscore it. It raises a great question: can a pop or rock song fit into these pivotal moments and have the same effect? Or is this strictly a score or silence choice?

I spoke with composer Kurt Oldman who is well-versed in the world of horror film scoring having lent his style to the creepy scores for Killer Holiday, Babysitter Wanted and Neighbor to get his perspective on this idea, how he approaches scoring horror films and whether or not vocalized songs can (or will) have a place in the horror film genre.

Songs with lyrics hardly ever precede scary moments; those moments are usually drawn out through score ‐ why do you think that is? Is it possible for songs with lyrics to fill those moments?

In my experience, songs are mostly used as source cues only in moments like this. Doesn’t mean that it hasn’t been done before or that it doesn’t work. It would obviously be a different point of view and can be quite effective at times. The struggles that we are dealing with sometimes in the score is that there might be too many moments pre-shadowed which in turn, after a while, the surprise factor of a scary moment can be diminished.

Playing a source cue through a scene like this, playing the complete opposite and maybe the antagonist’s point of view can be quite intense. This has been explored a lot in the ’80s and early ’90s. Sometimes successful, sometimes not so much. I think it’s always good to have a balance and keep the audience surprised. It’s important to keep the overall story well served musically as well and not get too stuck on certain moments. A good scare can be accomplished in many ways, sometimes with unorthodox methods, sometimes with silence. It all depends.

Television shows, particularly those aimed at teens (The Vampire Diaries, The Secret Circle), are filled with music from popular and up-and-coming bands, but those songs (and their lyrics) drop out as a more frightening, rather than emotional, moment comes to the forefront of the scene ‐ is there a way to keep the lyrics going without losing the edge needed to create the tension before a scare? Could lyrics be used as the distraction that would make the score all the more unexpected and unsettling?

They certainly could. It all depends on if you want to prepare the audience for the scare. A scare could come completely out of left-field having a source cue playing up to this point, or even through it. I think historically some of the best frights are accomplished following silence. It is somewhat of a formula now to lead up and pre-shadow situations like this.

In the score we always try to back off a bit before a big bang. It is much more effective that way. In general I think the horror/thriller genre is much more about the tone and mood of the film, which doesn’t make it easy to place songs at times. They are probably the least accessible genres for lyrics.

You are certainly no stranger to creating intense, frightening scores that incorporate unexpected elements with the instrumentation for a layered, but still off-putting effect ‐ would including lyrics to all that end up being more distracting than interesting?

Lyrics can definitely be distracting in such a use. Audiences are just naturally drawn to listen to the words. It’s normal.

I remember using lyrics at the director’s request as part of a score a couple years back. They drew way too much attention to themselves even mixed down pretty low in the mix. Although being eerie they just didn’t fit the genre or tone of the film. We ended up playing the vocals backward with a reverse delay added to it. That worked beautifully and was frightening as hell. Obviously not too many folks would be able to hear the actual lyrics out of it.

What are some elements that you find help deliver the best scares within a scene? Is it more of a tone or a particular instrument? Or both? Does it depend more of the project itself?

It really depends mostly on the project. I’m always spending time writing material away from the picture and create small suites for the director, maybe twenty to thirty minutes worth of stuff. This really sets the tone and most of the instrumentation as well. Personally I like to experiment a lot with orchestral textures and ideas. I’ve always been a big [Krzysztof] Penderecki fan and have studied his music for years. I also like to use a lot of acoustic instruments, modify and use them in unorthodox ways and then process them. In Inferno we used a bowed banjo and a bowed acoustic bass. The end results where pretty disturbing. In Babysitter Wanted we used a bowed psaltery which added the tone of the location in a very eerie way.

With more and more electronic elements and electronic based artists (like Trent Reznor and Daft Punk) coming into composing, where do you see the horror score genre going? Are there certain trends you see coming to the forefront?

We always seem to go through phases in film scoring. We have to be aware and on top of what is hip right now. We’re constantly adapting to what’s new. Electronic based music lends itself very well to the horror genre. It’s a wonderful genre to explore, let loose and go wild at times. You don’t have to restrict yourself and hold back as much as in other types of films. Over the years I have noticed that with all the trends, we always end up coming back to writing very traditional orchestral scores. Even in horror.

Do you think there is a place for vocalized songs in horror films? Could those types of songs add to the suspense or do they naturally distract from it?

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