Davidson College

The Tritone Interval and Its Use in Horror Films

By Andrew Wright

Known in the Middle Ages as the “Diabolus in musica” (the devil in music), the tritone has historically evoked an unsettled and ambiguous feeling. It rubs us the wrong way because of its dissonant nature.

Being six semitones away and the 6th step in the circle of fifths away from the tonic – perhaps a symbolic connection to the devil’s number, 666 – it is ideally positioned so that moving but one step in either direction leads to a consonant and more satisfying interval.

As Janet Halfyard writes in an essay tracing the use of tritones in horror comedies, “harmonically speaking, [the tritone is] as far from grace as one can fall; if C were the tonic in a major scale, 6 steps away positions it as the furthest interval in either direction.”[1]

Some listeners might recognize the tritone from its use by Leonard Bernstein in “Maria” from West Side Story.

West Side Story – Maria (Carreras)

The tritone, through its dissonance and symbolic association with evil, has historically been considered an important strategy used in horror film scores to bring the audience along an unsettling journey and to emulate and embody the monster or Otherness.

Given its unsettling nature and its symbolism for the devil, the tritone is a frequently used tool in horror film scores to create anxiety-making settings and to represent the unnatural. It’s particularly common in parody-horror films, as Halfyard eloquently discusses, because of its ridiculousness to an almost comedic affect.

Unlike parody-horror, classic horror films are sometimes composed atonally, following Schoenberg’s twelve-tone method and the Second Viennese School method. Benjamin Frankel’s score for The Curse of the Werewolf offers one example of that.

The tritone amidst so many other disruptive and unnatural sounding intervals and chords becomes somewhat redundant and less effective in these instances (Halfyard, 24). Nevertheless, horror still finds effective uses of the devil’s interval, as occurs in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining.

Returning to the tritone’s use in horror comedy, consider Marc Shaiman’s waltz-theme from the 1991 horror/black comedy film based on the earlier television sitcom, The Addams Family. Shaiman’s elegant waltz starts in F minor and then moves to an unexpected G# minor, which introduces a B natural into the harmony. F and B are a tritone interval away, which helps to embody the eccentric parody interpretations that Gomez and Morticia Addams play on classic horror film villains.

The Addams Family (Theme-Song)

 The lydian scale, minor key harmonic modulations, and the whole tone scale are three strategies that employ the tritone. The lydian mode creates the interval of a tritone with the first note of the scale by raising its fourth note, sounding then like a major scale but with a raised fourth scale degree. Halfyard further observes that John William’s main title for The Witches of Eastwick (1987) incorporates this mode effectively as he disguises the innocent folk melody just as Jack Nicholson’s character does his own innocence (Halfyard, 28).  Halfyard also points to minor key tritone harmonic modulations in John Debney’s score for Hocus Pocus (1993) (Halfyard, 30).

Hocus Pocus (Main-Titles)

Danny Elfman frequently uses this technique in relation to demonic characters or situations, perhaps none as effectively as in The Frighteners (1996) and Beetlejuice (1988).

Next time you hear an eerie, unnatural sounding interval, tune in and see if you can pick out a tritone!

Andrew WrightAndrew Wright, a senior at Davidson College, is studying Economics and Music. A trumpet player of 12 years and a composer of less than one, Andrew performs and composes music influenced by numerous styles, but all focusing largely around jazz. He has accepted a job for after he graduates as a digital marketing analyst at Red Ventures in Charlotte, NC.


[1] “Mischief Afoot: Supernatural Horror-comedies and the Diabolus in Musica,” from Music in the Horror Film: Listening to Fear, edited by Neil Lerner (Routledge, 2010), 23.

Music of Horror Long Before Horror Films Existed: Schubert’s Erlkönig

By Siân Lewis

Deriving from the traditional Danish ballad Elveskud, the myth of Erlkönig – often translated as Elfking – tells the story of a young boy nearing death. The delirious boy, who is frantically carried by his father on horseback, becomes increasingly aware of another being – the Erlkönig – who is calling for him. After his father’s reassurance that all is well, the son cries out that he has been attacked. The poem ends with the father realizing that his son is dead.

“Franz Schubert: Erlkönig”
Music by Franz Schubert. Poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

The piece has been set to music by several composers over the years, but Schubert’s rendition, composed in 1815, is one of the most highly acclaimed. Although a traditional Lied, Schubert’s composition uncovers some of the same techniques that are often employed within horror film music today.

A common mood evoked in horror music is sadness, fear, and trauma, and minor key signatures have long aided in the art of emotional turmoil – the Jaws theme for the shark, in A minor, and the Saw theme piece, in D minor, are famous examples of this. Erlkönig is no exception to this rule.

Erlkönig shifts through a set of keys that are not commonly associated with each other – G minor, B minor, C# minor – which add to the overall feeling of tension and trauma that is often attributed to the genre of horror.

Schubert takes this further however, using major keys – Bb major, C major and Eb major – to depict the call of the Erlkönig as he lures the small boy to his death, an action that remains reminiscent of the horrific. If this was not strange enough, Schubert adds the flattened submediant during the young child’s calls, adding a darker and more disturbing sound.

“Franz Schubert – Erlkönig (Sheet Music and Lyrics)”
Listen to the young boy’s distraught cry of “Mein Vater” and the repetition of the Eb.

Neil Lerner’s preface to Music in the Horror Film: Listening to Fear highlights film scholar Robin Wood’s earlier exploration of the way that Schubert (among others) investigates “taboo topics through various levels of subterfuge and subtext” (ix) and how even a work like Erlkönig is an important antecedent of the horror film genre.

Indeed, the concept of writing a song for a Goethe poem that hints at not only death, but also at a supernatural force that creates fear, anxiety, and leads to a child’s death, provides us a striking example of the kinds of earlier artworks that lead up to horror film. Therefore, although Erlkönig is not an example of music from a horror film, it is an important precursor to the narratives that horror film, and horror music, will take up and develop more than a century later.

Siân LewisSiân Lewis is a senior Music and Political Science double major from England. Primarily a vocalist, she is a member of the Davidson College Chorale and The Davidson College Nuances (a cappella) and has recently released an EP of original songs that she recorded and co-produced at Davidson.

Alban Berg’s Wozzeck and the Roots of Horror Film Music

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.[1]

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.[2]

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.”[3]

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 FreundlichCaleb 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.


[1] Alban Berg, “The Problem of Opera.” Classic Essays on Twentieth-Century Music, edited by Richard Kostelanetz, (Schirmer Books, 1996), 277-279

[2] Carl E. Schorske, “Operatic Modernism,” The Journal of Interdisciplinary History 36/4 (2006), 675-681.

[3] Berg, “The Problem of Opera,” 279.

Operatic Tragedy in Fatal Attraction

By Blake Skelton

Adrian Lyne’s Fatal Attraction implicitly juxtaposes the stories of two scorned women: Alex Forrest (played by Glenn Close) and the titular character of Puccini’s 1904 opera, Madama Butterfly. Some of the most significant moments of Fatal Attraction are accompanied by music from the opera, including the film’s original (but unused) ending, wherein a heartbroken Alex commits suicide accompanied by Puccini’s “Un bel dì vedremo.”

Fatal Attraction – Alternate Ending,” YouTube video, 8:38, “rodirodi24,” June 2, 2002.

Although Fatal Attraction has some of the characteristics of a horror film due to Alex’s unsettling actions and her almost supernatural inability to be killed when she attacks Dan and his family, the alternate ending is so transformative to her character that it brings this classification into question.

A frequent definition of horror film involves an encounter between normality and abnormality; if Alex is a tragic heroine like Butterfly rather than a monster to be eliminated, is Fatal Attraction a tragedy instead of a horror film?

The version of the film as initially released in September 1987 portrays Alex as a monstrous, almost supernaturally powerful Other.

In her essay “Rereading the Bitches from Hell: A Feminist Appropriation of the Female Psychopath,” Deborah Jermyn suggests that Alex is one of the first cinematic female psychopaths whose behavior is motivated by explicit emotional and psychological trauma.

By drowning and shooting her, Dan and Beth fulfill the familiar ritual of horror that occurs with the elimination of an abnormal, evil element and subsequently reinforcing the boundary between the so-called normal and abnormal. Alex’s character arc is resolved with extreme violence, firmly categorizing her as an aberration threatening the domestic happiness of the Gallaghers.

The original ending encourages a starkly different reading of Alex’s character through the comparison of Alex with Butterfly. Although both characters commit suicide, the music playing as Alex slits her throat is not “Con onor muore”—a frantic aria fraught with tritones during which Butterfly commits sepuku—but rather “Un bel dì vedremo,” in which she fantasizes about the long-awaited return of her husband. Within the opera’s narrative, the aria is tragic, foreshadowing Butterfly’s heartbreak and death. The inclusion of “Un bel dì vedremo” in the original final scene of Fatal Attraction forces the audience to grapple with Alex’s anguish by evoking a tragic operatic death.

As Alex’s violence turns inward, we see the character as an imploding product of her circumstances instead of an abject disruption that has to be eliminated. The original ending portrays Alex as a deeply troubled person instead of a monstrous threat to societal stability, transforming Fatal Attraction from a horror film to a tragedy.

Blake SkeltonA Computer Science and Music double major at Davidson, Blake Skelton has been playing violin for sixteen years. While particularly enamored with the overlap between late Romantic music and the music of the early twentieth century, her interests also include 3D modeling and baking sourdough bread.

A Brief History of Horror Cinema

By Adam Ferraz

The horror film has a long and complex history that dates back to the early twentieth century, and with ancestral roots that stretch back even further, to Gothic novels and revenge tragedies and Greek tragedies, among others.

Horror films began to appear during the so-called silent era of cinema (roughly 1893-1927), and the first significant cycle of horror films started with the German expressionist cinema of the 1920s, specifically The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). These German films influenced a wave of Hollywood horror films that began in 1931 with classics such as Universal Studios’ Dracula (1931) and Frankenstein (1931).

The 1950s and the Cold War era saw an overlap between science fiction and horror films, as well as an appeal to adolescent viewers with films such as I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957). In the 1960s, as Barry Keith Grant wrote in the Schirmer Encyclopedia of Film, Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) and its infamous shower scene began the cycle of “family horror films” and “radically reconfigured the genre” by focusing on psychological villains in a mundane setting rather than supernatural villains in a Gothic or fantasy setting.[1] Listen to some of Bernard Herrmann’s music from that scene.

The 1970s brought an overall reexamination of genre movies in American cinema, and the horror genre during this time saw auteurs creating films such as The Exorcist (1973) and Halloween (1978).

The 1980s featured a resurgence of the sci-fi/horror blend as well as a focus on body horror and the horror comedy film. Finally, the 1990s brought both television horror (such as The X-Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and big-budget, prestige horror such as The Silence of the Lambs (1991) and Interview with the Vampire (1994).

Despite—or perhaps because of—its convoluted and well-established history, the horror film genre remains immensely popular today, and is still finding ways to both scare and entertain people.

Pictured (above): Janet Leigh in “Psycho” (1960)

Adam FerrazAdam Ferraz is a senior English major and Film and Media Studies minor at Davidson College.


[1] Barry Keith Grant, “Horror Film,” Schirmer Encyclopedia of Film, edited by Barry Keith Grant (Schirmer Reference, 2007), 394.

Hearing Horror: Why a Davidson Seminar is Studying Horror Films and Their Soundtracks

By Neil Lerner

As a teenager I developed a strong interest in Bernard Herrmann’s film scores. Music in films like Psycho (with its savage accents and dissonances) and Vertigo (with its beautifully obsessive and repetitive qualities) fascinated me long before I ever took a music history course or began writing a dissertation on film music.

I couldn’t have articulated it yet as a young person, but Herrmann’s radical individuality as a composer impressed on me that a Hollywood composer could use a wide variety of musical styles, some of which could be quite experimental and might not at all sound like the typical post-romantic sound pioneered by composers like Max Steiner and Erich Korngold.

After studying modernist and contemporary music in graduate school, I began to notice that some of the avant-garde musical sounds that alienated concert hall audiences in the early part of the twentieth century appeared with some regularity in horror film soundtracks.

It may be regarded as a commonplace of twentieth-century music history that film music absorbed some of the practices of aesthetic modernism from the concert hall, and that in particular the genre of the horror film turned to unresolved dissonance, atonality, and timbral experimentation as part of its characteristic stylistic qualities. Frightening images and ideas can be made even more intense when accompanied with unfamiliar musical sounds, and music in horror films frequently makes us feel threatened and uncomfortable through its sudden stinger chords and other shock effects.

This fall, eleven Davidson students are participating in a seminar studying music and sound in horror films. Interdisciplinary in its approach, the course brings senior music majors into conversation with seniors minoring in film & media studies.

This breadth of backgrounds and perspectives, made possible through Davidson’s commitment to an open-minded liberal arts approach that doesn’t get hung up with disciplinary boundaries, allows us to talk in robust ways about films and their scores, and the students have written blog posts for the month of October that cover a representative sampling of topics and films from our seminar.

In the spirit of Halloween, we hope they’ll be both informative as well as maybe a little bit frightening.

Pictured (above): James Stewart in Vertigo © Paramount Pictures.

Neil LernerNeil Lerner is chair of the Music Department at Davidson College, where he has taught since 1997. A musicologist who publishes regularly on film music, video game music, and music and disability studies, Lerner has edited or co-edited four books, including Music in the Horror Film: Listening to Fear (Routledge, 2010).

L.A. Theatre works observes 50th Anniversary of MLK Assassination with radio drama “The Mountaintop”

Pictured: Gilbert Glenn Brown and Karen Malina White from the radio drama, The Mountaintop. Photo by Matt Petit.

This year, we mark the 50th anniversary of the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, outside of his hotel room in Memphis, Tennessee, only a few hours after his historic “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech. The radio drama, The Mountaintop, imagines what may have occurred in King’s hotel room just before his tragic death.

We spoke with The Mountaintop’s Producing Director Susan Loewenberg to get her insight on this important work.

 

Q: What do you hope the audience takes away from this performance of The Mountaintop?

A: My hope is that our audiences come away from seeing The Mountaintop with a deeper understanding of the complex and beautiful soul of one of our greatest leaders who was taken from us at the age of 39. Who knows how he would have evolved? We can only speculate. But his message, his doubts, his frailties, his convictions, his commitment to a crucial cause deserve our undying admiration, respect and understanding.

Q: Why do you feel it’s important to highlight Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. with this behind-the-scenes approach?

A: Good plays engage audiences both emotionally and intellectually. In order to accomplish emotional engagement, we need to be able see behind the façade. An audience wants more from a character than his/her public persona. When both the emotions and the intellect are engaged simultaneously you have “combustion,” and that is the mark of a good play.

Q: What’s unique about the “live-in-performance” radio drama experience? Why do you think radio is still an important medium today?

A: Live-in performance radio drama is our signature form for presenting our work. Interestingly, without elaborate sets and movement, you, the audience, are able to have a more intense experience focusing on terrific performances and indelible words. For the actors, it is a challenging feat to be able to communicate using only your voice. It requires intense concentration and an awareness that everything must be communicated vocally. I often say to actors, “It’s great to smile, but unless the smile is in your voice, no one listening will ever know that you are smiling.” Regarding the importance of radio today- yes, it is still important. But radio, like every media outlet, must adapt to the reality of digital technology. So radio now includes streaming and podcasting, all in the service of enabling the listener to avail themselves of the medium anywhere, anytime. 

The Davidson College Artist Series brings The Mountaintop to Charlotte-area audiences Friday, February 23, 2018. For more information about this performance, click here.

WDAV Spotlights Disability Employment Awareness Month

October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month in the U.S., established more than 70 years ago to celebrate the contributions of workers with disabilities. Throughout the month, WDAV highlighted classical musicians with disabilities who have left an indelible mark on the arts.

In addition to this on-air focus, we partnered with Davidson College students in Professor Neil Lerner’s seminar on music and disability studies to produce a blog series highlighting composers and performers with disabilities. We also turned to the community to discover what role music might play in serving individuals living with disabilities. We spoke with Meg Johnson, Music Therapy Clinical Coordinator for the Queens University of Charlotte, who provided insights into her use of music therapy.

Read full article on wdav.org