Composing Horror Music for Audio Drama Draft 1

About me

I have been composing for audio dramas since 2015 and worked on over 30 projects. A lot of these projects are horror related

Composers who inspired me

  • John Carpenter who composed the scores to films such as Halloween, The Fog and Escape From LA. One thing I really admire about Carpenter was ability to create simple pieces and make them memorable and iconic. One of the Pieces from Halloween that gets used in some of the chase sequences uses a single piano note with synth sounds underneath but yet despite that one piano note when you hear the track you know were it is from because of the rhythm and the low pitch. For 2018 Sequel this track had been reworked and it’s now full of guitar drums and synths giving the track a really buff thick texture.
  • Daniel Licht who scored the TV series Dexter. The music for Dexter often varied from the Dark and mysterious to light and Mischievous. The music for Dexter was always very immersive it could truly pull you into the mind of a serial killer. Many of the pieces utilize the piano with synths or strings underneath. I do really love the sounds of a piano sustained over a synth or some strings and hearing the piano ring out over some lightly pressed notes or chords. I recommend listening to the Blood Theme
  • Malcom Clarke who composed music for a number of 80s Doctor Who stories such as Earthshock and Terror of the Vervoids. The Soundtrack to the episode Earthshock is a lovely combination of sound design and synths that truly create a wonderful sense of fear of the Cybermen. The metallic hits represent a march of an army one made of metal. The sound of modern Doctor Who tends to focus on a more orchestral approach and while I enjoy this also it doesn’t quite feel the same as the way the show use to those older pieces of music really did sound alien and I think this is something modern music fails to capture.

  • Bear McCreary Composer of the TV series The Walking Dead and films such as The Boy and the Child Play remake.
    The walking dead isn’t wall to wall music like other shows in facet there are long stretches without music but when the music is there it plays a crucial role. The theme music itself I have found quite interesting in that the composer recorded tons and tons variations so the theme music however so subtle is never the same as the last. Bear has used his sound design skills on the show to even incorporate a Kazoo were he layered the sounds of the Kazoo and dropping the sounds an octave.
    I have done this myself on a few SCP episodes by layering sounds such as camera shutter sounds and changing the pitch and added many effects such as delay or reverb.

My Favourite VSTI and effects plugins

  • Spitfire Albion One
  • Spitfire Labs
  • Soundiron Olympus Elements
  • Spitfire Audio Harpsichord
  • Project Sam’s True Strike
  • Cine Brass and Cinewinds from Cinesamples
  • Spitfire Grand
  • Cinesample’s Voices of War

Theme Music

The theme music for a show needs to represent the show or single story a theme tune could completley give the wrong impression of a show or a bad one may people off for good. When composing a theme for someone it is important you discuss the feel of the show as much as possible how dark will it be? When is it set? All play a part in how the music will sound and it’s instrumentation.

Some shows have narration over theme music sometimes I composer the music first then the narration is placed after other times vice versa. Having the narration first means I can set the tempo of the music around the narration and also make sure the music caters to the actors voice.

When I compose a piece of theme music I pick the persons brain of what they want as much as I can. It can be hard for people to put across what exactly they want as most lack musical terminology to explain what is in their head. Others are unsure which leaves you in a position of possibly changing/creating the feel of a show/story. Length is probably the easiest thing to get from someone so that bit is at least easy. Some theme songs will contain distinctive melodic lines or small phrases that will give the listener something to whistle or hum along to however a sound design type score may had no melodic elements at all. Horror music can range from a very simple theme such as the Halloween Theme (1978) to the complexities of Psycho Theme (1960). In the following example we have The Radcliffe Square Labyrinth theme which is a light and fairly melodic horror theme which fits in with the light horror story compares to that of my Darker Down The Basement Theme.

When I begin to compose a piece of theme music I want the listener to be sucked into the world of that show. Sometimes the music can shape the whole feel of a show so one must be careful in being faithful to the material. Sometimes as a composer you can see things the writer/director may not, you hear their ideas but your own ideas can develop this even further.

Underscore and transitions

Underscore is the music to under all your scenes. The music in audio drama I feel should never just be the front and back pages of a book the intro and outro he should be scattered across it’s many scenes. When I first started working in audio drama I was surprised to hear a lot of audio dramas with hardly any or sometimes even no music. There were also a very small number of composers about so I wanted to help fill that void.

Majority of the projects I work on the underscore is composed after I have an audio file of all the dialogue. Some times you can prepare some music before but you will never know what will truly work until you hear it. Scripts can paint one picture for your mind to create music but when translated into audio these can make a scene feel very different. When composing the music for any scene you want to take extra care in not smothering the dialogue so no one can work out what’s going but you also don’t want to end up with music you can hardly hear as this will make many scenes feel underwhelming. If the client doesn’t want you to have the audio file it’s rare but dose happen this is going to make your job harder as you won’t know what truly works without hearing the scenes so the person in charge is going to have make things even more crystal clear also if they have no musical experience it’s possible they may butcher the track when they are editing it trying it to get it to fit the scene.

Being the compeer for SCP Archives I notice we get many comments to the show some good and some bad. One interesting comment was by someone on itunes who said they hated the music on the show as is frightened then and they could not get to sleep to it. Well I say good! we didn’t want to have the show a dry reading we want to create a cinematic experience whether you get sad cry or feel scarred than I feel proud we could evoke that reaction.

Innocent instrument fragile instruments of voices such as children can be used in horror music to create some rather eerie effects. A few tacks I have worked on I have used toy pianos and children’s choirs to create a rather ominous sound. In a project I worked on called Lost Hearts I composed some vocal parts and one of my actors Austin Mosher also recorded all the vocal parts for me for which created a rather eerie feel for the ghosts in the story. In that case the music became diegetic as the sound source was actually inside the story but with non diegetic instruments underneath.

Examples of horror score

  • Sound Design type score – These types of score don’t tend to rely on melodic pieces but mainly on strings and long sustained notes some types of score may just had recoded sound effect with or without effects plugins added to them to shape the sounds even further.
  • Orchestral – Using only orchestral based instruments Strings, Woodwinds, Bras Percussion.
  • Hyrbid – A combination of orchestral and electronic instruments such as synths and eclectic guitars.
  • Electronic – Use of Synthesizers and possibly guitars, electornic drum kits and bass.

Music theory

A lot of horror music is written in minor keys which tend to have a more negative sound compared to major keys. You will also find some horror pieces will have notes that clash out of the key and also have a abject notes to create a more dissonant sound. Minor and major 7th chords and Diminished chords are also very common in horror music. My SCP Archives Theme music is mainly in C minor however I have a note outside of the key which is B. Also on the lower piano parts there are some sections were I would have the notes raise chromatically

Silence. volume and dynamic changes

Knowing when to not have music is also very pivotal to a story. Some horror tension is driven by a very quiet sound maybe a single note going from very quiet to very loud then stopping this builds up tension and anxiety for the listener. Dropping instruments or sounds in and out is also a great way of adding panic to a scene as you never know what the music is going to do next. Pop music for example can often feel safe as it follows repeated patterns however in a horror scenes the unpredictable can put the listener at unease. You can also use dynamic and volumes changes to make sure not to cover quiet or unclear dialogue on important moments. In the following example I use small rests in parts of music and pull certain instruments in and out of the mix making the music unpredictable.

Tempo (BPM)

Tempo changes also play a strong role for creating terror in a horror score for example having a slow tempo which speeds up to create tension for example the theme from the movie Jaws has.

Composing With disabilities and Health problems

I have Asperger’s Syndrome, Dyspraxia, OCD, Tinnitus and Scholioss.
Having these I feel gives me a different process compared to other composers. For example headphones are a big no no for me this can be limiting in hearing a mix rather than through speakers. Having health problems which affect me every day means I can’t always work when I want to however I am fast at what I do and don’t like to fuss so when I work on something Ill do as much as I can so I will really make use of the time. Growing up as a kid with no friends meant I spent a huge amount of my time watching TV and getting VHS and I always loved watching horror and Sci-fi movies which have had a big impact on the type of movie and shows I continue to love and also how I compose

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