Why do some songs/tunes (e.g. The X-Files theme) sound kinda eerie or strange?


What is there in these songs that make us feel scared or tense, even when the person has never watched the X-Files before?

In: 3

Music theory is pretty cool. Generally speaking, dissonance is a harsh scary sombre sound while consonance is a pleasant mellow soothing sound.

Two notes that are adjacent on a piano or mashing all the keys possible on a piano is a very harsh example of dissonance but we can make it sound much more musically appealing such as in the X-files theme

For one, the music being in the minor key really helps… ever hear the x files theme in the major key?


This is likely due to “Leitmotifs”, the name for bits of music to relate to a feeling, mood, idea etc.
These end up being learned and reused, and like Pavlov’s dog, you end up getting some feeling from an audio cue.

Take for example underwater music, you’ll often have harps in some repeating melodies
It’s even got a submarine sonar ping. Something you won’t have personally heard, but you know from films. You just associate all that stuff with water despite not many people play harps when you go swimming.

“Space” music is similar to the water stuff, but has long drawn out symphonics to give a sense of awe as well as echos to give a sense of size. Space famously doesn’t have a sound, but this becomes the go-to thing

Now for the big one, The Omen had its famous music, which is now associated with things satanic, but it’s a bunch of Latin poems set to quite intense, anxiety building music. Rhythmns are often linked to breathing and heart beats to add to the effect.
That music as a whole has been associated with demonic possession, and that now means that Monks chanting in Latin is another simple leitmotif for all things sinister, even though it was a religious “praise god” kinda thing to start with.

You can spot these leitmotifs in the wild, the best place to find them is film scores. Batman has a lot of church bells for church=belfry=bats.
It gets clearer in the films as the music wasn’t composed for music’s sake, it was done to match what was on screen.
Often without the visual side, it can seem to be all over the place, as it will jump between themes, moods and feelings a lot, because the visual part would have been telling a story too. The leifmotifs in these are particularly heavy, it doesn’t matter if they are jarring as the screen fill in the gaps.
The intro music for a film usually is the best for this, as the intro visuals wants to rapidly set a scene and some exposition, and they’ll telegraph what they want you to feel.
Listen to some without watching the visuals and see if you can guess what they are trying to show.
You’ll end up recognising what they are trying to say, and notice that the music or sounds don’t specifically relate to that, but relate to cultural cues that you already know.