From unnerving lyrical imagery, to ominous sounds and harmonies via banned musical intervals (yes, that actually happened), we explore the elements of music that have the potential to chill, and in some cases, thrill. And we’ve made a playlist of tracks for you to hear for yourself – that’s if you think you’re hard as nails. Best of all, they sound great, too.
There have been many moments where musicians have conjured up a composition that sits way outside the normality of their more popular offerings. Whether in the realms of the mainstream, indie or film, there’s one thing for certain – some are outright perturbing.
But what makes this music so alarming to listen to? There are a number of reasons, admittedly some more prominent than the others; choice of harmonies, genre, use of sounds and lyrics are just the tip of the iceberg. But when combined in a certain way, they can certainly raise a few hairs on your arms.
Inventive use of sound
We think it goes without saying that all unnerving pieces of music must contain unnerving sounds. Take Thriller by Michael Jackson for example. Not only is it a well-constructed song, it’s loaded with werewolf noises, creaking doors and footsteps, and features a famously sinister monologue from Vincent Price, an actor well known for his distinctive voice that was used in horror films throughout the twentieth century.
It would be rude not to include film soundtracks, and while there are so many classics to choose from, we’ve decided to go with an extremely recent piece of writing from Blade Runner 2049. Composed by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch, Sea Wall is a thrilling sonic display with enough distortion and noise to take you straight to the heart of the frighteningly futuristic dystopia of Los Angeles.
A strong addition to this playlist for their mind-boggling manipulation of sounds are Australian electronic group The Avalanches, and Frontier Psychiatrist was the first single off their debut album released in 2000. Built around many sampled elements, it’s an incredibly fun listen. But it also contains some weird and wonderful noises combined with ghoulish choral singing and a vintage sounding orchestral accompaniment.
Another track that raises a hair or two is A Saucerful of Secrets by Pink Floyd. It’s quite a journey, with dark, experimental organ sounds intertwined with percussion and guitar feedback that swirl around your skull. This is Floyd arguably at their most weird.
Music and Lyrics
Aside from impressive sampling and sound design, sometimes all a song needs are some chilling lyrics and creepy harmonies to make it a thrilling listen in this category.
And perhaps a song less commonly associated with skin-crawling music is Death On Two Legs by Queen. We think there’s something incredibly monstrous about the overall harmonic energy of the song. From the distant piano chords, to the heavy guitars – not forgetting to mention the epic operatic delivery during the chorus, it has all the makings of an angry, relentless track. This song is a scathing attack against Queen’s first manager, and you can almost hear Freddie Mercury’s veins exploding in tandem with his vocal delivery.
There are some classics that we couldn’t leave out of this playlist such as Ghost Town by British ska kings, The Specials, and Black Sabbath by (you guessed it) Black Sabbath. Both tracks possess macabre-like chord progressions, especially the latter, where Ozzy’s voice and lyrics full of satanic imagery are enough to give you goose-bumps.
On the same lyrical level is Gouge Away by Pixies. Black Francis’s blood curdling singing about bodily mutilation is a common feature in Pixies songs, and this one is no exception. It’s also a solid musical closer to their seminal ‘Doolitle’ album, which is packed full of meaty alt-rock guitar. Pixies were once described by the late David Bowie as a psychotic Beatles, and there’s where we’re headed next.
Eleanor Rigby might sound like an unusual choice for a playlist about disconcerting and unnerving music, but if you listen closely we think it reveals a lot more than just your average Beatles song. At the time it was regarded as a major move by the band to a more melancholic style of writing. This you can certainly hear in complex musical modes used, but the song has also been described as a lament for lonely people and this is why it makes our playlist.
The next piece is a firm favourite for evoking plenty of unwanted creatures from music. Composed by Edvard Grieg, In The Hall of the Mountain King has all of the musical ingredients that make a thrilling listen. It starts ever so quietly and at a snail’s pace, gradually building into a frenetic finale that relentlessly drives towards the finish line.
Written over 200 years later, we have another track that excels in terms of extensive dynamics and atmosphere. Since the 1980s, noise-rock outfit Swans have always produced music of a certain demonic quality and their track Screen Shot, from their 2014 release ‘To Be Kind’ continues this tradition. Just like Grieg’s miniature masterpiece, it builds quietly, with a bass guitar line that creeps in, and gradually crescendos into an epic wall of apocalyptic noise.
This playlist wouldn’t be the same without including The Cure. We chose A Forest as our track to top it off, as we think it contains the perfect mixture of unnerving ambience, harmony and lyrical imagery. It’s an incredibly mysterious track, summoning vivid depictions of a forest full of gloom and angst.
And finally… Imagine a world with banned music
We can’t. But back in the 11th century, there was something used in music that was considered so evil that it was banned by society. This is the augmented 4th, a musical interval that sounded so ugly, people called it the ‘devil in music’. Played by itself we can see why, but in context within a piece of music you would barely notice at all. Therefore, we’re pretty sure some tracks in this playlist would be frowned on back in the day, too.