How to Make Any Song Spooky

'Tis the season... to take your sound and give it a dark side. To take the things you've been learning on your instrument and approach them with a sinister motive. There are many ways to do this—and if you're willing to take the risk, to haunt your sound with tricks and treats, then I've got a few ideas for you. [Cue the evil laughter.]

First, let's talk theory. What are the pieces of our musical language that lend themselves to this brooding darkness that we crave? Well, here are three techniques that I find pretty spooky.

Joe Shadid is showing off all of the tricks and tips below on Reverb's Instagram channel (beginning at noon Central time, October 27). Click the link to hear them in action.

Scary Music Theory Tricks

1

Unrelated minor chord movement.

Take a minor chord and then combine it in motion with an unrelated minor chord. What's unrelated? A chord that is outside the diatonic family of your first chord. For example: If you have G minor (a fine, sad, spooky chord), look for a chord that is outside the G minor world for your second chord. If you go G minor to C minor, that will sound kind of "minor folkie"—not what we want. If you go G minor to D minor, that will sound contained in a—yes, sad—but a familiar way. We don't want that either.

We want unresolved, mysterious motion that does not settle us into any kind of comfort. We want our bodies to initially reject it, and then succumb to it. Try G minor to Db minor. Now we're getting a little freaked out. Try G minor to B minor. Yeaaaah, that's spooky. It's almost depressing.

So, generally, don't look for 4th intervals and 5th intervals in your chord movement. Look for flat 5ths, major 3rds, and keep everything just straightforward minor. You will achieve the haunt.

2

Chromatic scale for chord building. When we learn chord theory, we look at the 1st, 3rd, and 5th of the scale. These notes are the foundation of chord structure in Western music. But it's October, so we burn this tradition—along with all of its inherent functionality—at the stake.

Instead of building chords with major or minor scales, let's re-calibrate the system and build chords with the chromatic scale. MUAHAHAHA! Pure witchcraft.

This technique works best on a piano, simply because of the layout. So, we assign chord tones based off of chromatics. Take D for example. If D is our "1," then our 3rd will not be F—it will be E. "But wait, E is clearly the 2nd of D, WTF?" Yea, it used to be, but then we set fire to the traditions of yesteryear, for blackness to light the way, and usher in the demonic presence of chromatic chord design.

OK, so we spell a chord like this "1, 2, 4, 5"—the spelling of this chord, in the key of D, would be D, Eb, F, Gb. Did you just play that chord? Wow, right? It doesn't get too much more unsettling. Try it in different ranges, throw it up an octave with a bit of reverb. Yep. Try a new chord, say, 1, 4, 5, 6. In the key of G, that would be G, Bb, B, C. Yikes, check to make sure you locked the door, cause anything could happen now. You're summoning the beast.

3

Dissonant Intervals. Our first two techniques were centered around chords; now, let's get into intervals. Let's pair together two notes, create dissonance, and let it linger there for an uncomfortable amount of time.

Major 7th (or half step). It seems weird seeing the word "major" in an interval and expecting it to be dissonant. However, on a piano, go ahead and play a C, and the next B, let them ring out together, let them fight for the space to be heard. Let them fight for their lives! You could do the same by putting the notes directly next to each other (play that same C, and put the B right next to it, a half step down).

When two notes are paired together with this kind of "disagreement," they fight for their space. They resonate with their right to exist, and it seems to confuse us in some way. It takes us back and forth: We're hearing that one note, now we're hearing the other... No, we're hearing the first note... Nope, it's that second tone I'm hearing. This kind of tug-of-war happens in the interval, and therefore, it happens in our bodies. Our skeletons rattle and shake against our organs. Our organs pulse and quiver back at our bones. It truly is a frightful and natural occurrence.

On a guitar, you can achieve this fairly easily on the G and B strings. Put your first finger on the B string 3rd fret. And your pinky on the G string 6th fret. Play them separately, but let them continue to oscillate together. Put some reverb with modulation on. Good luck falling asleep tonight.

Scary Gear

Any of these theory tricks work acoustically. The language itself carries the malevolent dynamic. However, gear! There is some gear that can supplement these techniques and push us further into the ominous world of haunted sound.


1

Modulated reverb. First, let's go simple. Conventional instruments, guitars, pianos, etc. with some modulated reverb and/or a degrading delay, will definitely achieve these spooky effects. A "go-to" for me is the Walrus Audio Fathom/Arp-87 pedal. It is easy to use, and has great modulation.

Set that reverb to Lo-Fi on Hi modulation, with the mix above noon. Set the X knob on the delay all the way up, on the S mode. Play that dissonant major 7th interval. And listen to those tones weave in and out of each other. It's ghost-like. Take this same approach with a synth, and all of a sudden you have a modern horror film score.


2

Spooky moods. Another really interesting piece of gear to create unfamiliar, kind of chilling sounds, is the Chase Bliss Audio Mood. This pedal is great for many things. And I have recently realized its potential in this more eerie soundscape space. On the left side, set it to Slip mode. Set the Clock at about 11, with Modify all the way down.

Then, play with the Mix knob. Obviously, all the way up on the Mix will make things quite unfamiliar, since it is just catching this kind of hairy sample of what you're doing. I like to re-amp instruments that I have recorded, run it through the Mood so I can manipulate the sound as it is passing. Plenty of spookiness resides there.


3

Pumpkin patch. Now, a couple of less-conventional instruments that I have used to create scary music are the Idiopan, which is like a steel tongue drum, and the Critter & Guitari Organelle, which has a "Thery Scary" patch. I call it the "Pumpkin Patch." You're welcome.

This Organelle sound is the epitome. It's a theremin mock-up. It cannot not be scary. You needn't any theory techniques. Just set it and play. The aux button gives you vibrato—use it. All you need here is a soul… that will soon be possessed, of course.


4

Dark portamento. A similar effect, which is a little less "theremin-like" can be executed with a Korg Prologue. Really, I think it's all about the "portamento" function. If you apply some of the theory techniques we discussed earlier, then we are combining these naturally dark intervals, with the sonic warbly wave that the portamento offers. It's as if the pitch is constantly unsettled. And then, when the pitches do settle, they are… unsettling.

It's a great effect for film as well. This idea is that we are "rising" or "falling" in a deliberate unstable motion, to then "resolve" only to land on unfamiliar territory. We've created a journey, set up an expectation, and then shattered that expectation. This is, I think, a great example of supplementing the language with gear, which is when the gear is most powerful.


I hope this helps you more readily understand some ways to create spooky sounds. Just like any other musical technique, whether it's writing something "uplifting" or creating an ambient "comfort" track. There are ways to deliberately carry out these colors. It really is all there in the language for us to translate.

As far as these scary sounds, it is often about knowing the rules, so we can break them. And if we add some cool gear into the mix, it seems like the sky's the limit. So have fun, try out these techniques, and expand your sonic palette with new ideas.

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