Unfortunately there are a plethora of films in the genre whose potentially tense scenes are completely trampled over by an over-exuberant score. Even worse is when the film depends more on the suspense created by the music than on the acting, character development and overall plot. These cheap scares are typically signaled by a score that continuously grows louder in volume until it screams at the audience; the blaring speakers making them jump. The terror here is due to the assault on the eardrums, rather than the cerebellum. Directors that intentionally use it to provide auditory cues as to when the next “big scare” is coming up are just using it as a crutch. It is a weak attempt to cover up their inability to conjure up suspense via dialogue and action.
However, when done correctly the soundtrack adds to the sense of foreboding and dread that the story was intended to dredge up in the viewer to begin with.
For example, let us look at John Carpenter's “The Thing.” “The Thing” is a great tragedy that produces in the audience tense feelings of dread and uncertainty right from the start. The foreboding continues on all the way to the end as the credits roll by and the creepy minimalist music continues.
The movie's main musical theme is played by a lone music synthesizer moaning out a single long note that is followed by a simple yet eerie dissonant chord; all of which is accompanied by base note moving along at a syncopated rhythm that provides a feeling of moving forward, like the sound of a moving train. The dreadful momentum of the score accompanies the character's quick descent into paranoia and despair. The opening of "The Thing" is a perfect combination of music and acting that provokes a feeling of being in an arctic wasteland with no hope of survival as you are hunted down and replaced by the alien monstrosity.
Watch the first few minutes of the movie to see what I mean.
Composer Ennio Marcone appealed to John Carpenter's aesthetic choice of minimalist electronic music when he made the score. To the trained ear there is not much of a difference between Marcone's composition and Carpenter's own personal musical style. The blowing snow, the sheer force and weight behind the sound of the frigid arctic winds, and an eerie score leaves the audience feeling cold, vulnerable and alone.
Even better, during scenes when the constantly mutating creature terrorizes the crew, the sound cuts back even more to become frenetic blips of panic as cello and violin strings are plucked. Your ears are not berated with carnival haunted house ride style blasts of sound that make you jump, solely because they are loud, not because of what you see on the screen. This is yet another example of less being more.
Less sound creates more fear. In fact, the fewer number of strings plucking away in the darkness, the creepier it gets. The sounds of the strings perfectly matches the goosebumps you get when you are immersed in true feeling of dread.
More sound makes me flinch. In some horror movies the amount of volume is so extreme at a "scary part" in a scene that it makes me jump and accidentally throw my popcorn onto the person sitting next to me in the audience. The premise of "You know its scary because its loud" does not work. It is a cliche at best, and at worst, a pathetic attempt to invoke a response when the acting, directing, and musical score cannot.
The suspense in "The Thing" that is created by great acting and a wonderful score is enhanced by the auditory cacophony that mimics the prickling ice cold fear that runs down a person's spine. And that's art.
That's the sound of the scare.