Green Screen Cinema Filmmaking for the 21st century

Free Film School: Dissonance

Monday, July 21 2008 @ 12:16 AM UTC
Contributed by: Jimbo
Views: 1,793
Free Film School

At long last I am proud to present the movie that Moby doesn't want you to see: "Giant Baby Attack!" This film is a demonstration of the concepts of dissonance and ostinato as they are found in the Poltergeist score, written by Jerry Goldsmith. Dissonance (a clashing or unresolved musical interval) and ostinato (a constantly recurring melodic fragment) are staples of the horror genre. To see how these concepts work to make otherwise brave people sleep with a light on, read more.

"Giant Baby Attack!" initially sets the tone of the film by repeating four vibraphone notes over and over again. Though the initial video images are cheerful, the repetitiveness of the soundtrack is quite creepy. It almost sounds as if there's something wrong with the orchestra. Why do they keep repeating those notes? Don't they have sheet music? Is the conductor dead?

Ostinato of deep notes (called "basso ostinato") sets an ominous mood. An extreme example of this technique can be found throughout the Halloween soundtrack. Though John Carpenter could not read or write music at the time he composed the soundtrack, by simply imitating the basso ostinato style he was able to create a truly effective soundscape.

The "Poltergeist" score is an example of what can be done when this style is in the hands of a master. Filmtracks calls it an "intelligent horror score that slowly and brilliantly transform attractive harmony into frightfully atonal terror". From the samples I've used in "Giant Baby Attack!" you can hear the incredible complexity that Jerry Goldsmith brought to the score. Not only were his basso ostinato sections rich with layers that evoked emotions in the listener, he then pierced that fabric with dissonant wails that were truly frightening.

At the height of the panic in "Giant Baby Attack!" there is a clockwork sound that clashes directly with the orchestra. The use of dissonance at this point unnerves the listener. It throws the listener off balance and makes them long for the relative clarity of the basso ostinato (creepy though it may be). In this way ostinato and dissonance act as the one-two punch of the cinematic world. The soundtrack puts you on edge intially with ostinato, then takes away whatever sanity you had left with a sharp moment of dissonance. This is how true horror is created.

I hope I've made my point that you don't have to revel in gore in order to scare your audience. A horrifying tone can be set with a plodding, repetitive score punctuated by dissonant shrieks. Watch "Giant Baby Attack" without the music and see how different the experience is. Dissonance and ostinato make this film much more frightening than would be possible otherwise.