film music

Terrifying Films, Terrific Music

By Hannah Lieberman

Think about your favorite scene in a scary movie. What is it that makes you cringe? Maybe it’s the notorious “dun-dun” of Jaws, or the cutting strings in Psycho. Music has a unique ability to heighten the tension in horror films and make audiences jump. The right soundtrack can even turn beloved family flicks into horrifying movies, as one editor did with Mrs. Doubtfire.

Pianist Ethan Uslan, known for his ragtime remixes of classical pieces, has experience in accompanying films of various genres, including some that might be on your Halloween playlist. We asked him a few questions about his experiences:

What goes into preparing for this type of performance? Do you have a score or are you improvising?

For most comedy films, I just wing it. I have lots of happy marches and ragtime pieces in my repertoire that fit well with slapstick action and a “funny” feel. I also have love music, sad music, danger music, etc, ready to go.  I often improvise and play with harmonies and tempos and volume and different registers of the piano and make stuff up on the fly.

Sometimes I make up little melodies but usually I use existing pieces in my repertoire (although I still improvise with tempos, volumes, etc). An example of existing music that I use: “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” makes a great love theme and Grieg’s Triumphant March works great when the hero vanquishes the villain.

For dramas or horror movies, it does not work to play lots of bouncy ragtime, so I prepare by seeing the movie in advance and compiling a little score filled with existing music (and lots of improvising in between).

The existing music can be classical (I played a lot of Handel in The Black Pirate and I like to play the Mendelssohn’s Gondola Song during the underground gondola in scene of Phantom of the Opera) or I use photoplay music, which was movie mood music published in the 1910s and 1920s just for the purpose of silent films.

Pieces would be called “Agitato #32” or “Love Theme #6” and you can use the in any movie at an appropriate scene.  Sometimes I use these and they work great.

What’s most exciting for you about playing music along with a silent film?

When the crowd gets into it they boo the bad guy and cheer the good guy and the room becomes electric.

What addition do you think live music brings to a viewer’s experience of a film?

Live music makes the event more exciting, and when everything is going right the performer feeds off the crowd.

Can you share an experience of the best feedback you’ve gotten about a gig accompanying a silent film?

After the film people have said nice things to me about the performance but honestly for me the best feedback is to hear audience reaction during the film – that shows me they are engaged and that’s the highest compliment I can receive.

Want to learn/hear some more on silent film music? Check out Episode #9 of Ethan’s podcast “The Carolina Shout,” entitled Don’t Open That Door!!


Hannah Lieberman is a senior at Davidson College where she studies Political Science and Theatre. She loves her work at WDAV, where you can hear her live on Sunday mornings.

Remembering Film Composer James Horner

Cinema has lost one of its best. James Horner, composer of more than a hundred film scores, died Monday, June 22, 2015 when the plane he was piloting crashed in southern California. Horner had been working steadily in Hollywood since the late 1970s, getting his big break in 1982 with Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, and later picking up two Oscars (Best Score and Best Song) for the 1997 James Cameron epic Titanic.

If John Williams was the composer of my childhood, then James Horner was that of my adolescence. I certainly knew of Horner early on, thanks to his work on Star Trek II and III (I was a big Trekkie), but it was Horner’s scores for Glory, Field of Dreams, Braveheart, and Titanic that most affected me. Horner was known for his ability to combine orchestra and choir in a way that evoked feelings of longing and melancholy, which my daydreaming, somewhat angsty young adult self-identified with on a deep level.

In interviews, James Horner has always struck me as a gentle, sensitive composer, aware of what was happening on the surface of the story—what you see on screen—but also very tuned in to what was happening beneath the surface, the tensions and motivations of the characters. Below are some clips of James Horner talking about his work.

Tune in Friday, June 26 at 9pm for Reel Music: Remembering James Horner.


Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)

Field of Dreams (1989)

Titanic (1997)

Karate Kid (2010)

The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)