Finding Fear in Haunting Harmony

Design by Sara Offer

Fear is rarely an emotion we search for in our music, and thus the category of Halloween songs is curiously ridiculous, parodying the emotion in the interest of easy listening. But what does it mean for a song to truly provoke fear? It is often implicit in our idea of “music” that the sounds are enjoyable to our ears and minds and bodies. And yet, there is music that is deliberately unsettling, harmonies that furrow eyebrows and freeze fingertips, sounds that nestle uncomfortably into the crevices of the body. 

In October, we uniquely pursue fear. We clutch our friends close as we watch horror movies and skitter around haunted houses, laughing with relief when we finally emerge into the light. But where is the music? I offer here a small sampling of hair-raising songs that leave a pit in my stomach, draw a lump into my throat, and send a chill down my spine. 

  1. György Ligeti, “Requiem: II. Kyrie”

It opens innocuously with a single, sustained note. Diverging almost immediately, the rumbling cacophony of voices imbues the listener with the feeling that something must have gone terribly wrong. The voices are saying words, but they are impossible to understand. There is no consonance to be found; the chaos ebbs and flows like waves of hysteria. It is perhaps the closest musical parallel to a panic attack. 

Ligeti wrote the piece sometime between 1963 and 1965, and it employs a tradition known as “micropolyphony,” in which each voice is so intricate that their amalgamation results in a clashing mass of sound. Individual lines cannot be discerned. Indeed, unsettling connotations are woven into the fabric of the piece—a requiem is a Mass written for the dead. This movement sounds like writhing, talking, protesting; its unintelligibility parallels the impossibility of clear communication with the deceased.

  1. Pauline Oliveros, “Bye Bye Butterfly”

An excruciatingly high pitch begins the work, its thin electronic tone burrowing deep into the ear. The piece is eight minutes long, and for the first three, the audience is lost in the harsh, oscillating pitches of archaic recording technology. There is no centering—no key, no rhythmic security. Listeners float uncomfortably in unfamiliar sounds that almost begin to resemble a human scream. Finally, a ghostly recording of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly echoes into the fray. The juxtaposition of electronic sounds with distorted opera provokes deep apprehension. The world this piece exists in is deconstructed, unnatural, and grating. 

Oliveros was a pioneer of early electronic music, and this piece demonstrates some of her revolutionary developments. The work was created nearly 60 years ago (1965), but it still sounds unlike anything heard today. The early technology haunts—the grain in the sound, the echoes of the primitive delay system—and leaves its listener on edge. 

  1. Cécile McLorin Salvant, “I Lost My Mind” 

What starts out as a sweet jazz melody quickly mutates into an eerie organ motif and a jagged robotic line, repeating over and over: I lost my mind; can you help me find my mind? The repetition is mesmerizing, the harmony saturating listeners in crunching, dissonant layers of sound that grow and grow. There is no chord resolution, and as the song climaxes, Salvant wails above her machine-like iterations in what sounds like desperation. 

Salvant’s rich voice is characteristically spellbinding in this song, but it is entirely unlike her usual, honeyed jazz tracks. The work is a questioning of sanity, and it very nearly makes you lose your own. Off her newest album Ghost Song (appropriate, no?), “I Lost My Mind” holds profound agitation in its harmonies. 

  1. Arca, “Piel”

Subdued humming and flatline tones: “Piel,” meaning “Skin,” contains terrifying power in its restraint. The voice that opens the song is raw—the trembles and breaks in Arca’s singing add a layer of trepidation to the listening experience. The haunting melody line repeats with varying levels of ambient droning electronic tones. Listening feels intensely melancholy, and the lyrics reflect this sadness: Quítame la piel de ayer (take the skin from yesterday off me), she sings, no sé caer (I don’t know how to fall). 

The intimate unease of “Piel” reflects a distinctly different sound than Arca’s more popular songs on Spotify. Its softness is what makes it frightening—the kind of song you feel you must hold your breath to.

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