Tom Parsons: Composing for Horror

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

Influences

Composers who inspired me:

John Carpenter

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John Carpenter composed the scores for films such as Halloween, The Fog, and Escape From LA. I admire Carpenter’s 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 despite that one piano note, when you hear the track, you know where it is from because of the rhythm and the low pitch. For the 2018 sequel, this track was reworked, and it’s now full of guitar drums and synths, giving the track a really buff, thick texture.

The Shape Stalks (Halloween) – John Carpenter

Daniel Licht

Daniel Licht 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 use the piano with synths or strings underneath. I do 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.

Malcolm Clarke

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The Trial of a Time Lord: Terror of the Vervoids Doctor Who serial

Malcolm Clarke composed music for several 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. While I enjoy this, it doesn’t quite feel the same way the show used to. Those older pieces of music sounded alien, and I think this is something modern music fails to capture.

 

Bear McCreary

Bear McCreary is the composer of 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 fact, there are long stretches without music. But when the music is there, it plays a crucial role.  I have found the theme music in that the composer recorded tons of variations. So, the theme music, however subtle, is never the same as the last. Bear has used his sound design skills on the show to even incorporate a Kazoo where he layered the Kazoo’s sounds and dropped 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 adding many effects such as delay or reverb.

Virtual Instruments and Effects

My Favourite VSTi and effects plugins:

Composing a Theme

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

Some shows have narration over theme music. Sometimes I compose the music first, then the narration is placed after, and vice versa. Having the narration first means I can set the tempo of the music around the narration and make sure the music caters to the actor’s voice.

When I compose a piece of theme music, I pick the person’s brain of what they want as much as I can. It can be hard for people to put across what they want as most lack musical terminology to explain what is in their heads. 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 give the listener something to whistle or hum along to. However, a sound design type score may have 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, a light and fairly melodic horror theme that fits in with the light horror story compared to that of my Darker Down The Basement Theme.

When I begin to compose a piece of theme music, I want the listener immersed in 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 ideas can develop this even further.

Underscore and transitions

Underscore is the music to under all your scenes. I feel the music in audio drama should never just be the front and back pages of a book. The intro and outro should scatter across its many scenes. 

When I first started working in audio drama, I was surprised to hear many audio dramas with hardly any or sometimes even no music. There were also a very small number of composers, so I wanted to help fill that void.

For most of the projects I work on, the underscore is composed after I have an audio file of all the dialogue. Sometimes 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 these can make a scene feel very different when translated into audio. 

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 it does happen. This makes your job harder, as you won’t know what truly works without hearing the scenes. So, the person in charge has to make things crystal clear.  If they have no musical experience, they may butcher the track when they are editing it, trying to get it to fit the scene.

“We want to create a cinematic experience. Whether you get sad, cry or feel scared, I feel proud we could evoke that reaction.”

On Scaring Your Audience

As the composer for SCP Archives, I notice we get many comments on the show, some good and some bad. One interesting comment was by someone on iTunes who said they hated the music on the show. They were frightened then and could not get to sleep. 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 scared, I feel proud we could evoke that reaction.

Instrumentation

Using sampled instruments of voices such as children in horror music creates some rather eerie effects. In a few tracks 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, Lost Hearts, I composed some vocal parts, and one of my actors, Austin Mosher, also recorded all the vocal parts for me, which created a rather eerie feel for the ghosts in the story. In that case, the music became diegetic as the sound source was inside the story but with nondiegetic instruments underneath.

Lost Hearts
Lost Hearts by Tom Parsons

Approaches To Scoring for Horror

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

Music theory

A lot of horror music is written in minor keys, which tend to have a more negative sound than major keys. You will also find some horror pieces with notes that clash out of the key and have 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 where 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. A very quiet sound drives some horror tension. Maybe a single note goes from very quiet to very loud. 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 will do next. Pop music, for example, can often feel safe as it follows repeated patterns. However, in horror scenes, the unpredictable can put the listener at unease. 

You can also use dynamic and volume 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 the music and pull certain instruments in and out of the mix, making the music unpredictable.

Tempo (BPM)

Tempo changes also play a strong role in creating terror in a horror score, for example, having a slow tempo that 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 Scoliosis.

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 that 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. When I work on something, I’ll do as much as possible to 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,use 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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