I realize that my question is inherently subjective to some degree but I think there might still be some prescriptive techniques to be gleaned from it from experienced composers.

I know that uncertain timing, sudden dynamic bursts, and glissandos can be very effective, but I'd like to exclude dynamics, syncopation, and rhythms from the discussion and limit discussion specifically to harmonic or tonal aspects.

For starters, let us just consider two chords. Some obvious tactics occur to me:

  • Jump every note a tritone up or down. Although this may sound especially evil if one or both chords are major, it certainly has a disruptive feel to it.
  • Make both chords minor -- although e.g. moving from Am to Em (both chords in the key of C) doesn't sound especially evil. I want to say that intervals of a fourth or fifth do not quality as "evil."
  • The two chords have few (or zero) notes in common.
  • dissonance required?

Is there any canon or definitive list of tricks that's been spelled out anywhere? Or perhaps we could start with some ancient list of what not to do and find ways to violate the rules? Or minimally some brief list of "most evil chord pairs."

Any input would be much appreciated.

closed as primarily opinion-based by David Bowling, Tim, Carl Witthoft, Dom Sep 21 '18 at 13:53

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

  • 1
    You will gain way more insight into this by finding parts of music that you think are scary/evil, and dissecting exactly what is happening. I guess it'll be more than just the change between two chords to make that happen. But if not - work out what the relationship is. – Tim Sep 21 '18 at 9:11
  • incorporating the chromatic scale (halloween and circus music do this alot) and chromatic mediants - as an example major chords spaced by minor third intervals (used alot in suspenseful movies) – foreyez Sep 21 '18 at 16:14

There are many of these tricks out there, but I don't know of many places where they're listed. That said, here are some I've picked up on:

  • Using instruments at the extremes of their range when playing the chords
  • Using dissonant chords [m(maj7), dim7, etc]
  • Extremes in dynamics of the chords
  • Sharp attacks on the chords
  • Picking chord changes that sound weird (i-♭ii, i-II, i-iii, i-♮iii, i-♭V, i-♭v, i-vi, i-♮vi, i-♮VI, i-vii, i-♮VII)

Edit: Some of the most "evil" sounding chords do in fact share notes, so in general the idea that note sharing influences this evilness is not accurate.

  • Maybe it's all the classical music and heavy metal I've listened to, but it's close to impossible for me to describe several of those chord progressions as evil. This is quite possibly because I've kept hearing those progressions in contexts where they are not connoted to be evil (e.g. i-II in Stephen Heller's "Warrior's Song", i-bii in "You Will Know Our Names" from Xenoblade Chronicles, a theme that plays when fighting plenty of neutral opponents, i-bV in Coroner's "Arc-Lite"--note all 3 are instrumentals). – Dekkadeci Sep 21 '18 at 10:02
  • @Dekkadeci how about Night On Bald Mountain, some excerpts from Rite of Spring, and the theme music from the shower scene in Psycho? – Carl Witthoft Sep 21 '18 at 13:05
  • @Dekkadeci You're absolutely right, and I agree with you on that. I'm just saying that they have potential. – user45266 Sep 21 '18 at 14:55

Tritones. As part of a melody, or part of a chord.

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But context is all. The entire score of 'West Side Story' is based on the tritone interval. It's in turn 'cool', romantic, dramatic and, yes, ominous.

I'm afraid that for every recipe for 'scary' music you're offered, it will be possible to find an example of the same thing being used to a different effect. And you can forget about any glib solution like the pair of chords you're asking for.

Try dissecting this score. It helps, of course, to know the title of the movie, and Hitchcock's reputation. Those Birds we hear tweeting away in the music aren't going to be benevolent!


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    hardly scary. Dissonant, perhaps – Carl Witthoft Sep 21 '18 at 13:06
  • The first one in the right key too ! – Tim Sep 22 '18 at 11:58
  • @CarlWitthoft - you obviously don't remember Dragnet. It was scary in the '50s! – Tim Sep 22 '18 at 11:59

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