By Caleb Freundlich
So much of what brings us terror lies in the unfamiliar, uncharted, and uncomfortable. In many instances, music represents exactly the opposite of this, using recognizable melodies and phrases to ease and please the ear.
Horror film music, however, is deeply rooted in sounds and techniques that push traditional barriers. Some of the most significant influences on horror film music comes from the Second Viennese School of the early twentieth century, led by Arnold Schönberg and his students Alban Berg and Anton Webern.
All three of these composers created music that was considered scandalous to many by not relying on the rules of functional tonality that had been in place in Europe for centuries.
Berg’s opera Wozzeck (1923) combines traditional and post-romantic musical techniques together with free atonality, and embodies what a horror film score should aim to achieve in many ways.
With a story filled with blood, murder, and madness—frequent components to horror films throughout the twentieth century—Berg uses not only Wagnerian leitmotifs and memory motifs for characters and as a way to indicate the advancing of the story, but moreover his movement in and out of atonality mimics the unraveling mind of the protagonist.
Furthermore, the use of this atonality challenges the listener in giving little sense to where the music may be headed. From the clip of Wozzeck’s “Tanzt Alle,” one can hear both these techniques; while there is a brief repeat of the piano motif in the second half of the clip, the majority of the piece is not only atonal but also highly unpredictable.
Berg’s use of trilled strings and droned brass adds significantly to the horrific aspects of the piece and the scene, as Wozzeck’s brutal murder of Marie becomes apparent to the other patrons at the bar.
Berg himself wrote that “at every moment from when the curtain opens until it closes for the last time, there must not be anyone in the audience who notices these various fugues and inventions…or anyone who is fulfilled by anything other than the principle idea of this opera, an idea that is far more complex than simply that of Wozzeck’s fate.”
Berg’s genius and influence lies within his ability to gradually reveal deeper and more troubling horrors about Wozzeck and the tragic characters surrounding him. In personifying the dark opera through its music, Berg creates a blueprint for the modern horror film score.
Caleb Freundlich is a senior Music and Media major at Davidson College. Caleb is an aspiring film composer who began playing music at seven years old. He also plays for the Men’s Basketball team at Davidson and is working on his capstone on Horror Film music.
 Alban Berg, “The Problem of Opera.” Classic Essays on Twentieth-Century Music, edited by Richard Kostelanetz, (Schirmer Books, 1996), 277-279
 Carl E. Schorske, “Operatic Modernism,” The Journal of Interdisciplinary History 36/4 (2006), 675-681.
 Berg, “The Problem of Opera,” 279.