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A Brief History of Horror Music

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posted on 01/10/2014

We've got an incredible collection of royalty free horror music available to license and download. But where did horror music come from? Find out more about the beginning of music being used to accompany horror movies and which influential composers set the score for an entire genre.

In the early days, horror movies were screened as silent movies and had little or no accompanying music score. As time went by, horror movies started to incorporate music into their scenes to help create tension, suspense or shock audiences. Franz Waxman's score for Bride of Frankenstein is often cited as one of the first modern film scores.

Horror Music - Early Cinema Scores

The late 1930s and 1940s saw unknown and often uncredited composers such as Hans J. Salter and Frank Skinner setting the tone for later horror music. Often the music was darkly and lushly romantic, but heavily influenced by impressionism, atonality and serialism. A chief example is The Wolf Man (1940) music score, to which Salter and Skinner both contributed.

Horror Music - Hammer Horror (1950s-'70s)

The sound of British Hammer horrors of the 1950s, '60s and '70s owed their musical feel to composer James Bernard, whose fast paced, frenetic, jarring scores to films such as Dracula (1958), The Plague of the Zombies (1966) and The Devil Rides Out (1968) are among his best-known. Bernard was fond of using the score to play along with the title of the film—his three-note signature for Dracula can be sung, and by prefiguring it with another four notes, Bernard could underscore the main title of Taste the Blood of Dracula.

Horror Music - 1960s Onwards

On the other side of the Atlantic, it was perhaps Bernard Herrmann's string score for Hitchcock's Psycho that changed the sound of horror music. The stabbing rhythms of the famous shower scene have been imitated many times since.

The 1970s saw a new wave of slasher films, which tended to have more contemporary-sounding scores, often using electronic instruments. Horror director John Carpenter was well known for scoring his own films, such as Halloween (1978). For The Exorcist, William Friedkin rejected a score by Lalo Schiffrin and used the temp track featuring assorted pieces of music including part of Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells.

Music is incredibly important in cinema to accompany scenes and invoke particular moods and emotions. We covered the musical score behind JAWS in this article.

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