10 Scary Classical Music Pieces

The_Shining_In one of the more infamous experiments from the annals of psychology, two Johns Hopkins University researchers in 1920, conditioned a nine-month old infant dubbed “Albert B” to fear toys he’d previously enjoyed, by associating them with scary sounds — a hammer striking a suspended steel bar. This was stark, if highly unethical, empirical evidence of classical conditioning. Now, classical music can evoke fear too. Modest Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain is menacing and macabre, with or without the Fantasia accompaniment. The following creepy pieces, in no particular order, are some of the most frightening in the canon: 10 Scary Classical Music Pieces.

1Symphonie_Fantastique. Hector Berlioz : Symphonie Fantastique — Dream Of A Witches Sabbath

The music appears in the following horror/b-movies: The Shining, Sleeping with the Enemy

Symphonie Fantastique was Berlioz’s strange attempt to woo Shakespearean actress Harriet Smithson, who’d appeared in a production of Hamlet performed in Paris in 1827 and with whom the composer had been instantly smitten.

The musical love letter though, contained the not exactly romantic fourth movement “Marche au supplice” (March to the Scaffold), a depiction of a Berlioz-like protagonist who overdoses on opium as a result of unrequited love, dreams he’s killed his amour and is led to the gallows.

The fifth movement, Dream of a Witches Sabbath is a terrifying dreamscape, depicting the ghoulish creatures assembled at Berlioz’s own funeral. His beloved is transformed into a whore and is cast into Hell so it’s probably for the best that Smithson, the object of Berlioz’s affection didn’t attend the 1830 premiere she’d inspired.

Berlioz would later write to a friend, “I had a furious success! The Symphonie Fantastique was met with shouting and stamping; they demanded a repetition of March to the Scaffold”…

Three years later, Smithson and Berlioz wed and perhaps not surprisingly, didn’t live happily ever after with this tumultuous back-story and divorced seven years later.

DemonsHonorable Mention: Edvard Grieg — In the Hall of the Mountain King.

The music appears in the following horror/b-movies: Demons, The Lost Boys: The Tribe, and Fritz Lang’s M

In another dream sequence, this piece, composed for Peer Gynt, sees the play’s eponymous character enter the Hall of the Mountain King, populated by gnomes, goblins and trolls who sing the charming sentiments,  “May I hack him on the fingers?” and “Shall he roast on a spit or be browned in a stewpan?” In the Hall of the Mountain King has become a hit with metal musicians, several of whom have performed the piece or music inspired by it including Rainbow, Savatage, Metallica and Helloween.

Alfred Hitchcock Aims2. Charles Gounod — Funeral March of a Marionette.

The music appears in Alfred Hitchcock Presents, F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise and Urban Legends: Final Cut.

The piece was written in 1872 for solo piano and then orchestrated in 1879.

The d minor mock funeral romp for a puppet became the theme to the TV anthology Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

Honorable Mention: Igor Stravinsky Firebird — Infernal Dance Of All Of Kashchei’s Subjects

The firebird is a Manichean battle between magical beings of Russian legend: The Firebird, representing good and the immortal King Kashchei representing evil. Any woman entering the monarch’s garden would be held under his spell, while any man would be turned to stone.

3. Sergei Rachmaninoff — Isle of the Dead

Charon is the ferryman of Hades from Greek mythology who carries souls of the recently deceased across the rivers Styx and Acheron, the bodies of water that divided the world of the living from those not answering the roll call to life. In The Divine Comedy, Dante hints that more than seasickness might be in store for those traversing Acheron:

Through me you pass into the city of woe: Through me you pass into eternal pain…

In 1880 Swiss symbolist Arnold Böcklin would depict the landscape as island of stark, rock faces and a coffin being transported there. This was the artwork that would inspire the Russian composer Rachmaninoff, who musically portrayed the strokes of Charon’s oars.

The_Thing4. Ennio Morricone — Soundtrack from The Thing

Who better to turn to for a film about parasitic extraterrestrial life-forms than Italian master Ennio Morricone? Roger Ebert called the flick “a geek show, a gross-out movie in which teenagers can dare one another to watch the screen” and also “a barf-bag movie” and it’s not one of John Carpenter’s best but its soundtrack is tops. The Halloween director is quoted in Order in the Universe: The Films of John Carpenter:

I love Ennio Morricone’s work. He and Bernard Hermann (Vertigo, Psycho) remain my favourite composers…The collaboration [with Morricone] was fabulous…I thought it was beautiful and I loved it.

Jack_Nicholson_Shining5. Béla Bartók — Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta Movement 3, Adagio

Perhaps the eeriest piece here, the piece was used to chilling effect by Stanley Kubrick in The Shining, as Danny Torrance pedals a tricycle down the hallways of the haunted Overlook Hotel and encounters the creepy Grady twins, portrayed by Lisa and Louise Burns, both of whom appeared recently for a British Film Institute London screening of Dr. Strangelove.

Honorable Mention: Gustav Holst — The Planets Suite: Neptune

A sickly child who suffered from brachial neuritis, a condition in which the nerves that control shoulders, arms, and hands become inflamed, Holst also had to battle asthma, the unorthodox treatment for which his father thought, was to take trombone lessons! In a remark that foreshadowed the digital downloading era, Holst, in the lean years post-Royal College of Music (where he was awarded a scholarship for composition in 1895) said, “Music-making as a means of getting money is hell.”

Luckily, his Planets Suite put him in another stratosphere popularity-wise (although when he did meet with some measure of success though the eccentric Holst became resentful and when people would ask for his autograph, he gave them a typed sheet of paper that stated “I do not hand out my autograph”.)

For Neptune, fittingly, Holst’s orchestral directions include “play sempre pp throughout, dead tone except for clarinet and violin.” The composer’s biographer called it a “prolonged gaze into infinity.”

Halloween6. Camille Saint-Saëns — La danse macabre.

The music appears in the following horror/b-movies: The Haunting of Whaley House, Halloween (2007), Stonehearst Asylum

The piece is based upon a French superstition that Death arrives at midnight on Halloween. In Saint-Saëns’s Danse Macabre by Georgetown professor Anna Harwell Celenza, the composer instructed the first violinist to tune the E string a half step lower to create the dissonant “devil’s tritone”.

To add to the piece’s demonic sensibilities, Saint-Saëns added a xylophone to mimic the sound of rattling bones. It was an instrument so new at the time, he included in the score where it could be purchased! It was so creepy “Danse Macabre” was initially rejected by the public but has lived on as blood-sucking accompaniment to an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the documentary The Road to Dracula.

Natural_born_Killers7. Carl Orff — Carmina Burana: O Fortuna

The music appears in the following horror/b-movies: Natural Born Killers and the infamous Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom. 

Rivaling Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor in popularity, O Fortuna is seemingly everywhere. It’s been used to make fun of Howard Stern Show producer Gary Dell’Abate infamously large choppers (“Ta Ta, Toothy!!”), parody Republican attack ads on MSNBC’s The Rachel Maddow Show, introduce former Vice President Dick Cheney during Conan O’Brien comedy bits and even as entrance music for the wrestler The Undertaker in 1998’s WrestleMania XIV. It’s appeared in The Doors, Jackass: The Movie and Detroit Rock City.

Asylum_(1972_film)8. Modest Mussorgsky — Night on Bald Mountain

The music appears in the following horror/b-movies: Whore and Asylum as well as loads of cartoons from Ren & Stimpy to The Simpsons

No piece on this list is as associated with Halloween due to its subject matter of witches and demons. Another composition based on a Russian legend, it was originally titled St John’s Night on the Bald Mountain, and was inspired by Kupala Night, a Slavic summer solstice celebration.

A chronic alcoholic, Mussorgsky succumbed to a stroke at age 42 and five years later (1886), Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov published a version of the work. The music was famously used in the 1940 Disney classic, Fantasia, in which a yellow-eyed demon conjures up skeletons that look like they’re swimming upstream. Filmmaker Steven Spielberg claims that this sequence more than any other, scared him as a child thanks no doubt thanks to the evocative music.

Honorable Mention: Salvatore Sciarrino — Six Violin Caprices

In The Guardian, critic Tom Service described the pieces as a “soundworld of shadows and spectres”. Blogger The Classical Iconoclast says “the music is always on the threshold of floating away…” Listen for yourself.

The instrument here sounds “scratchy”, because of harmonic overtones that are created using a technique the composer called “brushing”, in which the bow is played rapidly to and from the bridge to the fingerboard along the string. Six Violin Caprices certainly provokes a feeling of angst.

psycho_shower_scene9. Bernard Hermann — The Psycho Theme

The music appears in the following horror/b-movies: Psycho/Re-Animator

The shower murder in Psycho is arguably one of the most famous scenes in cinema history.

Stephen Husarik, Professor in Humanities and Music at the University of Arkansas–Fort Smith, says:

The sounds of the slasher music have become iconic in 20th century film music. Even those who have never seen this film before recognize the screeching ‘Murder’ motif whenever it is paraphrased in music.

Interestingly, Hitch initially wanted the scene to have no music. Luckily Bernard Hermann convinced him otherwise. Before the collaboration, Hermann had worked with Orson Welles and even wrote music for The War of the Worlds and The Twilight Zone. The string ensemble launched what’s been imitated and duplicated countless times in horror films to the present day.

Eaten_Alive10. Johann Sebastian Bach — Toccata and Fugue in D minor.

The music appears in the following horror/b-movies: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Tobe Hooper’s Eaten Alive

Jonathan B. Hall, a Fellow of Trinity College, London and member of the American Guild of Organists Professional Certification Committee is one of several who’ve questioned the authorship of this infamous piece, popularly known as the “Phantom of the Opera” song.

On his blog, Dr. Hall says “I have long chafed at the assertion–backed up by exactly nothing–that Bach “must” have written the Toccata and Fugue in D minor….This struck me as vanishingly unlikely on the face of it. Compare the pieces we can certainly date to Bach’s nonage, and none of them even remotely hint at this kind of idiom.”

Rutgers Professor George B. Stauffer though, a past president of American Bach Society, told the New Jersey Star-Ledger “It was over the top in his day, and it remains over the top in ours.”

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6 comments

  1. Cool list. Suspiria has to be my favourite though. Tenebrae has a great giallo theme too – although not particularly scary. I also love Halloween: Season of the Witch and Killer Klowns from Outer Space has a wonderfully surreal soundtrack. Tragically overlooked.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. So true! Suspiria is the ultimate horror soundtrack, but Tenebrae is grade-A Goblin too. The Killer Klowns’ score is totally atmospheric and surreal and probably overlooked because the theme song by The Dickies is just so indelible.

      Liked by 1 person

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