Why this creepy melody is in so many movies

Remember when Mufasa died?
Or when Luke Skywalker’s aunt and uncle were killed? Or even when George Bailey decided he couldn’t bear to live anymore? These are some of the most grim, tragic moments in film history, but they have something else in common. Once you start paying attention, these four notes are everywhere And we’ve been associating them with death for almost 800 years. What you’re hearing in those movies is called the “dies irae,” A Gregorian chant created by Catholic monks around the 13th century. It was used for one specific mass: funerals. [Latin chant plays] “Dies irae” translates from Latin to “Day of Wrath.” That’s the day Catholics believe God will judge the living and the dead and decide whether they go to heaven or hell for eternity. It really is the sort of fire and brimstone passage that’s talking about the day of reckoning where in essence the decision is being made whether you’re going to heaven or you’re going to hell. That’s Alex Ludwig, a musicologist and professor from the Berklee College of Music who keeps a big list of dies irae references in movies. The musical material and the text combine together to create this sort of ominous sort of sense of dread. Over the next few hundred years, the Church’s influence spread considerably, and the Day of Wrath started popping up in works of art outside the church, like Mozart’s 1791 symphony “Requiem,” influenced by the music of funerals. In 1830, French composer Louis-Hector Berlioz took the dies irae’s cultural capital to a new level. In his “Symphonie fantastique,” he lifted the melody but left out the words. Berlioz’s story isn’t set in a church or funeral — it’s about an obsessive love, in which the main character dreams that the lover he murdered has come back as a witch to torment him. The movement is called “The Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath.” And so it’s set at midnight in a graveyard and there are all these creepy spooky pieces of music, including the dies irae. What better piece of spooky music to play? Because this is a piece of music that already had these connotations behind it. Other great composers added versions of the dies irae to their works too, like Hungarian composer Franz Liszt’s Totentanz, or Dance of the Dead, inspired by this medieval painting depicting suffering and death, or Giuseppe Verdi’s Messa da Requiem. And then we have the early silent films. Where the dies irae is then extracted even further and used as a sort of sample or sort of reference to dark, ominous actions taking place on screen. Silent films were often accompanied by full orchestras, playing songs that helped propel soundless stories along. Like 1927’s Metropolis, a silent German sci-fi about a dystopia full of robots and destruction — which uses the dies irae in a particularly dramatic moment. As films started incorporating sound, the dies irae kept being used as a shorthand for something grim. Like in It’s a Wonderful Life and Star Wars: A New Hope. But perhaps its most iconic use is in The Shining. Everyone knows The Shining is a horror film and it’s like, that’s the perfect signifier for the dies irae. The dies irae has come a long way from 13th-century funerals to scary movies. That’s because there’s something about those four notes that makes us feel uncomfortable. Let’s talk about the music. The chant is in what’s called Dorian mode — and we don’t have to dig into all the ancient modes like that — but today if you would play those first four notes you would say that that’s in a minor mode. Minor music has always had this connotation of sadness, of darkness. If you look at the actual notes, you’ll see that F and E are half steps apart, right next to each other. Our ears are trained not to like those sounds together. Plus, the notes descend, getting deeper as the phrase progresses. Musical lines that descend are sad whereas music that ascends, that rises, is much happier. Combine these three things together and you’ve got an inherently spooky song — even without all the fire and brimstone. If you talk to a music professor like Alex, they’ll tell you the dies irae is everywhere. And it is — but maybe not in places untrained ears will catch. The phrase has become so culturally ingrained that even a modified version — like the theme to The Exorcist — or a shortened version, like the Nightmare Before Christmas can suggest the same scary feeling. It’s just that it it fascinates me that this piece of music still gets used. I’m still hearing them. I’m still adding films to my list.

100 thoughts on “Why this creepy melody is in so many movies

  1. Correction: Mozart’s Requiem isn’t a symphony, it’s a requiem: a type of Catholic mass for the dead. It was initially written for mass but later popularized and performed outside the church, as was Verdi's.

  2. I just realize it is also in the intro of "once upon a dream". No wonder it's kinda gloomy

  3. Also Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances & Rhapsody On a Theme by Paganini……He was a morbid guy…

  4. Wow, now that you mention it, this melody is actually used quite often in the Nightmare Before Christmas. Besides the song "Making Christmas" (as you mentioned), it's also in "Jack's Lament". So cool!

  5. Can anybody tell me what's the piece that plays at the very end, over the credits? The slightly jazzy one with descending chords? It's awesome.

  6. Random statement but old church music will forever be one of the scariest things to me

  7. It's also used in thousands of other songs as this short progression is almost unavoidable in any music written in any key that has these notes. ROOT… HALF STEP LOWER…. ROOT…. FULL STEP LOWER Of course this will appear everywhere. If you were to play the preceding and following 2 or 3 measures all of those songs would be unrecognizable as far as similarity to each other. If you were to shorten the progression down to just 3 notes you would see thousands and thousands MORE songs that use THOSE 3 CREEPY NOTES! Next do a video on just the F note and how it miraculously appears in almost every song ever written – how creepy that would be….

  8. It’s also in Jack’s Lament from The Nightmare Before Christmas.
    He’s already dead anyway.

  9. If you like these kind of videos check out the channel Sideways, he does practically this video plus a bunch of other great videos.

  10. The best use of the theme is in the star wars song: Anikans betrayal. 😊

  11. I’m sure there is more stuff involved there is not many ways to arrange notes…

  12. Now currently used as the theme for both Final Space and Dead by Daylight

  13. Hey, Vox, can we get someone to read these music ones who can pronounce Mozart's name correctly? Or Liszt's? Is that a possibility? I do not want to be too hoighty toighty, but it is hard to take this 'music expertise' stuff seriously when you cannot even pronounce the names of the figures you are alluding to correctly.

  14. I first heard this chanted by two choirmen in a small chapel in the first requiem I've ever attended, reading the lyrics and the translation as they sung. It was chilling, I felt at unease.

  15. 4:20 to say Dorian mode is Minor mode is like saying oranges are apples, they are completely different

  16. OMG my choir teacher just taught us about this! We even played a song called "dies irae" that had those 4 notes a lot!

  17. "The Exorcist theme" is a stretch, given it wasn't composed for that film. It is, in fact, Tubular Bells by Mike Oldfield. It is possible that these notes could appear in a piece purely by coincidence (there's only four of them) – but you'd have to ask Mike Oldfield to be sure.

  18. This sounds like (I'm not sure if this is true) the Disney channel theme song but in a minor key

  19. At 20 seconds, I recognise that melody from Liszt Totentanz. It's the main theme of his death dance, used exactly like that in every variation. The melody is unchanging

  20. According to this video, using a semitone (half-step) interval, not even together but consecutively, is displeasing to the ear. Ok sure then

  21. I do not feel uncomfortable listening to the Dies Irae melody. It can be very calming and soothing.

  22. So basically it was created to be apart of their nwo rituals to sacrifice to Remphan, Moloch, and Dagon. It has nasty dark undertones because that is exactly what it is

  23. My friend brought it to my attention that it's also in Clerks II as Elias is explaining "Pillow Pants" to Randal. I checked and it's also uncredited.

  24. 5:12 The track from the exorcist (Tubular Bells) wasn't made for the movie and wasn't intended to be creepy, so it probably isn't a modified version of Dies Irae.

  25. Most iconic use is in The Shining? Who Wants to be a Millionaire begs to differ

  26. Do a vid on how 4/4 time signature became the most common. Even in classical it is the most common. Was it a fluke? Is there some primordial reason? What's the deal?

  27. When you already knew this because you’ve watched The Hunchback of Notre Dame 10000000000+ times

  28. Hey @Vox , what song is used in the credits of this video? something PD? link?

  29. Lord of the Rings melody is not even the same melody. This is likeseeing hexegons everywhere and claiming Stanley Kubrick invented them. But then saying the Lord of the Rings got it's melody from this is like drawing an octagon and saying you got it from Kubrick.

  30. at 4:52, the C major scale shown in the background doesn't go to C, it instead stops at B and then descends back to A

  31. You know what's a "tragic melody"? The narrator's G.D. VOCAL FRYING! Had to stop video after 0:35!

  32. I have been wondering about this for years. Noticed it in The Shining, Metropolis, and The Screaming Skull.

  33. I appreciate that Vox makes things like this, but:

    1. The motif is 8 notes, not 4

    2. Ask someone how to pronounce composers' names

    3. You can't make generalizations about melodic semitones being sad (and it was the professor that said that?!?). There are too many "happy" examples that prove that wrong.

    4. If spending a lot of time making animations for notes, maybe make sure they are the correct notes?

    5. The main reason we hear Dies Irae as creepy is not because of some intrinsic musical feature but because it's been the theme of death and funerals in so many movies.

  34. Guess my music teacher from school some 15 years ago would be proud.. instantly recognized it's about Dies Irae.. too bad though, because I like to watch this videos hoping to learn something new lol

  35. Same song I sang every year in treble choir and no one knew what we were singing but us

  36. Um, Dorian is technically one of the modern modes…even though we got it from the ancient Greeks. It's something we still use. A lot.

  37. I was playing Dead by Daylight, when this video popped up on my YouTube. Well… its music has the same melody 😀

  38. The most effective use of this melody is the Berlioz SF version used at the beginning of Kubrick's "The Shining". It introduces and conveys the sense of approaching dread the movie is well known for.

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