Three lit jack-o-lanterns sit against a dark background with music notes coming from their mouths.

Halloween Tracks and the Musicality of the Mood

By Rebecca Harrell
Music Journalist

‘Tis the season for pumpkin carving, apple cider, horror films and spooky music. A genre exists for just about every season of the year, and it evokes an emotion and a feeling within us in order to put us in the right mood for that time of year.

Christmas music is jolly with jingle bells all the way, and summer playlists consist of steel guitars and lyrics about catching waves and rays; what is it about the music we listen to to prepare for Halloween that makes it appropriate for the season? 

Now this is a question I’ve been dying to find an answer to every time October rolls around, and I’ve found the simple answer. Like other seasonally themed music, the musicality and special effects incorporated in the pieces are what allows us to feel what the artist’s intent was.

Keys and individual notes of a song are the most noticeable traits when listening to a track. We know the melodies, harmonies and variation of sounds of our favorite songs, and when discovering something new, the key will usually factor into how you like or dislike the piece. 

Whether it makes you feel triumphant or somber within that key, we notice notes that sound out of place, like they do not belong. In Halloween music, this creates an uncomfortable feeling and makes our ears twitch in an eerie way.

Halloween themed music popularly utilizes jazz techniques and scales. Though the song may be in a major key with evenly spaced notes in the chords and scales, one note that does not belong creates a sound that adds a sense of mystery and can make you twinge. 

Yes, there is “Witchcraft” by Frank Sinatra, but as the category of the song falls under the jazz genre, I feel as though this is a cheating example. 

“Werewolves of London” by Warren Zevon stands as a Halloween classic written in a major key embellished with jazzy traits. The constant pinging of the piano in couplets along with epic jazz piano solos create a different feeling, making you want to bob your head with the beat and also sing about a story of werewolves.

A modern example of Halloween jazz would be “Vampire Chick” by Shawlin Supreme & the Kick Back Boys. They sing about going on dates with a vampire girl, describing her traits. The song is also written in a major key but utilizes those jazz scales to create funky combinations we can’t fail to notice. An extra saxophone solo or two doesn’t hurt in creating that sound, either.

Singer Screamin’ Jay Hawkins sits Indian style against an orange background. He is surrounded by vases and flowers and wears a white and purple hat and sunglasses. The words “At Home with Screamin’ Jay Hawkins” reads in large font behind him.
Screamin’ Jay Hawkins “At Home with Screamin’ Jay Hawkins” album features the Halloween hit “I Put a Spell on You.” Image via Spotify album cover.

On the other side of music, songs written in a minor key automatically force us to recognize that this is weird and doesn’t sound natural. 

“I Put a Spell on You” originally by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins is a prime example of this as it is written in a minor key and has the mainstream jazz defining characteristics: saxophone quartet, raunchy solos and a beat slightly off from a metronome if it were to be compared.

 Other jazzy tunes you most likely know are “Spooky” by Classics IV, “Witchy Woman” by the Eagles and “Ghostbusters” by Ray Parker, Jr.

Along with the technicalities of the music and how the actual music is composed, added sound effects are a more direct approach to creating creepy constructs. Classics like Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” and “Halloween” by Aqua incorporate prefaced narration and skits to help tell the story of the song.

 Sounds like a phone ringing, echoing voices and of course screams paint a Halloween horror scene, giving us the same adrenaline rush as watching a murderous movie would.

Whether you’re team Spotify or Apple Music, I recommend searching Halloween playlists to prep you for October 31. Listen for those irregular notes, jazzy chords and tempo and movie-like sound effects that make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, and get spooky.

Featured image by Rebecca Harrell via Canva.

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