The following is excerpted from the Berklee Online course Sampling and Synthesis in Film Scoring: Electronic and Textural Resources.

The music from the 1978 film Halloween was revolutionary, not just because director John Carpenter also composed the score, but because of Carpenter’s adventurous use of early synth pads and stabs, which helped him create one of the most powerful and creepiest soundtracks of all time.

The late 1970s were a pivotal time for electronic music in the soundtrack format, and music like this was previously the domain of science fiction, but Carpenter discovered that the new electronic sounds lent themselves well to the horror genre. 

Halloween was a low-budget film, which cost around $300,000. There weren’t enough funds to pay a film composer, let alone an orchestra. Carpenter had studied music as a kid and played in bands. He then booked a studio in LA and connected with Dan Wyman—and eventually engineer Alan Howarth—to help him realize the soundtrack with synthesizers. The challenge was that they had to record the music without synchronizing it to picture since the technology had not been invented yet. They played and recorded the music to a click and a stopwatch, then matched it up with the film later on the 35 mm mag stock at the film studio. It’s amazing, the score works so well and really captures the horribly frightening vibe perfectly.

Director and composer John Carpenter sits with technologist Alan Howarth at Pi West Studio, working on the soundtrack for the 1978 horror film, "Halloween."

John Carpenter, left, with technologist Alan Howarth at Pi West Studio

On his website, Carpenter tells the story of composing for the film:

“[The script for] Halloween was written in approximately 10 days by Debra Hill and myself. I screened the final cut minus sound effects and music, for a young executive from 20th Century Fox. She wasn’t scared at all. I then became determined to ‘save it with the music.’ I had composed and performed the musical scores for my first two features, Dark Star and Assault on Precinct 13, as well as many student films. I was the fastest and cheapest I could get.”

Carpenter has said that his biggest influences as a composer were Ennio Morricone and Bernard Herrmann, the latter of whom is best known for his score for Psycho, which is the film that inspired Halloween. He says the rhythm of Halloween’s main title theme was inspired by an exercise his father taught him on the bongos in 1961, the beating out of 5/4 time. 

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“There is a point in making a movie when you experience the final result,” he writes on his site. “For me, it’s always when I see an interlock screening of the picture with the music. All of a sudden a new voice is added to the raw, naked without-effects-or-music footage. The movie takes on its final style, and it is on this that the emotional total should be judged.”

Let’s take a look at the main Halloween theme:

The musical notes of the main theme of the 1978 film, "Halloween."
The Main Theme to Halloween

The main theme from the film is actually very simple yet incredibly memorable. This could be because of its haunting dissonance or its relentless drive. One of the techniques Carpenter uses to make us feel unsteady is the irregular time signature. As he mentioned, the piece is in 5/4: the syncopation is created with accents in groups of 3, 3, 2, and 2. The initial pace in the groups of three is set, but then is suddenly changed to groups of two, making it feel as if it’s pushing us forward and creating an unsteadiness.

A piano plays the 10-note melody in eighth notes. The C# to F# (Tritone) repeats three times and then the C# raises a minor 2nd to D and returns to F# (creating a minor 6th). The entire melody descends one half step, C to F (TT), creating a feeling of falling and leaving what was the original key. The chosen intervals of tritones and minor 6ths that then descend by a minor 2nd all create dissonance and tension just by the inherent nature of the intervals. 

Whole notes (playing every 10 notes) in the low brass and layered electronic strings play the tonic to give us an impending doom and a slight feeling of grounding. Tucked underneath the melody is a steady pulsing electronic rhythmic percussive sound almost sounding like a foot keeping time played in unrelenting sixteenth notes. All of these parts together create a suspenseful and dissonant theme that is incredibly unsettling.

Let’s take another look at the main theme in a different context. Warning, there are spoilers ahead, and some legitimately scary scenes:

The theme occurs as soon as a car approaches and drives by the girls. Jamie Lee Curtis’ character Laurie notices the car. Her friends think it’s a mutual acquaintance, but it’s really Michael Myers, the killer. As Laurie’s head turns and watches the car pass slowly, the pulse of the music matches the speed of his driveby. As soon as Michael stops the car—once the girl yells at him—the music surges in volume. Then it slowly fades out as his car finally passes. 

The simplicity of this theme is highly effective with its steady pulse in 5/4 time and the recognizable melody. The tick-tock clock-like nature of the electronic percussive sound in relentless sixteenth notes suggests Michael’s unrelenting drive to kill. It truly is what makes this scene so frightening. There’s no gore here, but we know the threat is imminent, and as the music is continuous, steady, and unresolving, we sit in anticipation and we know this threat will continue. 

Let’s take a look at another scene, this one is definitely gorier:

The following music cue, “Michael Kills Judith,” occurs when Laurie sees her murdered friend on the bed in a position representing Jesus dying on the cross. For context, Judith is Michael’s sister, who he killed at the beginning of the film. It is her gravestone on top of the bed.

The mysterious three-note synth melody is immediately recognizable as the “Michael Kills Judith” cue, establishing the fact that Michael has already killed Laurie’s friend. The synth lead sound is made of a triangle wave with dissonant minor 2nd layers. It’s interesting to note that as the sound is held, you can hear a wavering or pulsing, similar to a vibrato. This steady pulse in the synth sound keeps time with Michael’s relentless mission, which has a terrifying effect on the audience.

Notice that just after the stinger, which is meant to surprise the viewer, a piano enters playing descending minor 2nds in steady eighth notes. The synth pad that accompanies the piano descends in scale with the piano, going deeper into the drama and the potential demise of our heroine.

This is the ultimate tension in the film! The music takes us through the terrifying ride of Michael hunting Laurie through the house until she is temporarily safe in the house across the street with the kids.

At about the 1:22 mark we are once again reminded of the three-note synth motif, which references Judith’s murder from earlier in the movie. Hearing the same musical motif makes us more fearful that Laurie will meet the same fate. 

It’s interesting to note that, when Michael attempts to stab Laurie in this scene, the music dies out. The silence during the most intense part of the film leaves us unsettled, as if the rug has been pulled out from under us. We stand in silence with Laurie as we wonder if she’s going to be alright. The music begins again when we realize she is still alive and Michael continues to move towards her with a simple yet steady single-note piano rhythm.

The tick-tock clock-like nature of the electronic percussive sound in relentless sixteenth notes suggests Michael’s unrelenting drive to kill. It truly is what makes the "Halloween" theme so frightening. Click To Tweet

It is this sort of technique, and the courage to keep the score simple that makes Carpenter such a master of horror music. Notice also that many of the score sounds in Halloween came from synthesizers but were emulating traditional instruments such as piano sounds, harpsichord sounds, strings, brass, and bass. 

Carpenter says the scoring sessions took two weeks “because that’s all the budget would allow.”

He dubbed the music in late July and finally saw the picture with an audience in the fall. 

“About six months later I ran into the same young executive who had been with 20th Century Fox,” he recalls. “Now she too loved the movie and all I had done was add music. But she really was quite justified in her initial reaction. … My plan to ‘save it with the music’ seemed to work.”

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