Just as there is no one true type of scary project, the royalty free horror music genre actually covers a broad range of musical styles. However, just as classic horror films will typically follow a formula to their plot lines and production values, horror production music cues tend to have similar elements that make them suitable for different suspenseful scenarios.
Music for films that follow the classic horror genre most commonly tends to overlap with the classical music genre. In fact, royalty free classical music is often used in horror music because of the nostalgia and old-time feel that classical music creates. This can be truly spooky and unsettling to the audience when combined with scary imagery. In addition to classical music tracks, horror music often draws on [[avant garde]] elements, where the focus is less on melody and structure, and more on experimental sounds and textures.
Modern horror projects, especially those that have a strong pop culture element, will also gravitate towards guitar-driven pop music, sometimes with vocals. Often times, projects in this style that have large music budgets will work with well-known artists to license or custom-produce a single specifically for the film. This has the advantage of leveraging star-status to help cross promote the film and the musician, but can be very pricey for lower-budget projects. To save here, producers can find many royalty free music tracks with lyrics that sound like their commercially produced counterparts.
Instrumentation refers to the number and types of musical instruments used in a piece of music. The instrumentation used in royalty free horror music tends to vary slightly depending on the style of the film and the type of music being used. Generally speaking, horror production music tends to either rely on orchestral instrumentation featuring a lot of strings, winds, and brass instruments, or be very “pop” driven with electronic instruments and guitars.
In orchestral horror music, you’ll find that stringed instruments such as violins and cellos are used to create a lush and thick classical sound. These instruments will often carry the melody and main themes of a film, and be used to identify characters or situations.
Violins, cellos and violas in particular can also be used in unexpected ways. By using harmonics and scraping sounds that can be produced by string players, composers can create jarring noises, high pitches, and other textures. These sounds can create suspense and raise the hairs on the back of the audience’s neck.
Additionally, horror production music will strongly feature brass instruments, such as french horns, trombones, and trumpets. These instruments are especially useful for creating short punches of sound, and are often combined with high-pitched woodwinds to create shrill effects that are most useful for scaring the daylights out of your viewers. As an example, woodwinds and brass were prominently featured in the classic horror film Psycho, where repeated stabs of piccolo flutes and trumpets created one of the most memorable horror soundtracks in history. Many horror stock music tracks try to mimic this classic technique.
It is important to consider overall production value when considering which royalty free horror music track to license for your project. Production value often refers to the quality and fidelity of the recording itself, but can also refer to the dynamic range (louds and softs) used by the composer of the music.
Stock music in this genre understandably has a wide dynamic range. Composers will use music that ranges from very soft to very loud. This contrast between musical tracks and even within a single music cue can help create suspense and tension. This contrast is often realized quickly, with abrupt, immediate changes in texture and volume.
Likewise, you’ll find a wide range of overall quality and fidelity when searching for royalty free horror music. For horror and scary projects in particular, it’s important not to write off a piece of music just because it sounds cheap or under-produced. In many cases, a “cheaper” sound or lower-fidelity recording can create more suspense and sound more chilling to the audience than a track that sounds like it was recorded on a professional sound stage with state-of-the-art digital recording equipment. It’s important to match the correct track to the scenario at hand, so read more about how to select the right royalty free music track for a scary scene.
Royalty free horror music tracks tend to run on the short side, with a medium walking tempo. However, your mileage will vary depending on the use-case, scene, and project genre. Slower tracks can be used with success to develop scenes and build suspense, while fast-paced stock music tracks are commonly utilized for action sequences and to create horror moments.
Most useful tracks will be in the one to two minute range. In many instances, specialized effects and “stabs” c an be used, and these are a few seconds in length.