Creating a Soundtrack to Evil

How do we know when we hear evil in music? Is it the crashing dissonance, the screeching soprano? Commentator Claire Blaustein studies the musical elements in several scores that have long inspired a sense of horror.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

It's Halloween, and commentator Claire Blaustein has a few things to say about some musical scores, ones that are just right for the season.

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CLAIRE BLAUSTEIN:

Ah, music. It has been called a divine gift, a blessing, and even the angels play harps and sing.

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BLAUSTEIN: But what happens when music is--well, evil? Composers may get their gift from a higher power, but they certainly don't restrict themselves to holy topics. Countless pieces of music have been inspired by the forces of darkness. In "Jaws," it isn't just the idea of blood and big teeth that makes it scary. The sound itself is actually threatening, creeping closer and closer and closer.

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BLAUSTEIN: John Williams didn't invent this trick. In Modest Mussorgsky's "Night on Bare Mountain," the demons that haunt St. John sound a lot like a certain aquatic menace.

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BLAUSTEIN: This kind of chromatic motion, where the notes creep along in very small intervals, definitely lets you know that something bad is coming. But there is one thing far worse, one interval so dark, so demonic, so dissonant that it can only be called the diabolus in musica, the devil's interval.

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BLAUSTEIN: In the Renaissance era, the tritone, those pounding downward jumps, were banned by the church for being too dissonant, and anyone who used them were suspected of heresy. It might have been scary stuff in the 16th century, but today our ears are used to dissonances like that. So new compositional techniques in the 20th century upped the ante a little bit, like American composer Henry Cowell in "The Banshee."

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BLAUSTEIN: The howling cry of the Irish demon banshee means that death is coming for someone. Cowell recreated it by scraping the interior strings of the piano with metal.

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BLAUSTEIN: Not all music that is associated with evil actually sounds evil.

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BLAUSTEIN: Some believe that Niccolo Paganini sold his soul to the devil. In exchange he became the greatest violinist that the world had ever seen. But the music he wrote for himself doesn't really sound that evil. It was just so devilishly difficult that it could not have come from anywhere else but the dark side.

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BLAUSTEIN: And trading one's soul to the devil is not just something musicians can do. Anyone can do it. In the story of "Faust," the aging academic gave up his soul in exchange for getting everything he'd ever wanted, and what he wanted was the love of the young Marguerite.

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BLAUSTEIN: Franz Liszt used this story for his "Mephisto Waltz," and here the devil takes on pleasant guises to tempt the beautiful young woman.

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BLAUSTEIN: It's the beauty of this music that makes it so dangerous because Marguerite is taken in and her dance with the devil ends up driving her mad.

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BLAUSTEIN: Liszt, like Paganini and Faust, had his own flirtations with the devil, but his soul bought him fame as the greatest piano virtuoso of all time.

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BLAUSTEIN: In music, as in life, the concepts of good and evil are hardly set in stone. Nothing is necessarily as it seems or, in this case, sounds. But whichever end of the spectrum the music represents, it is definitely a force to be reckoned with.

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BLOCK: Our commentator is Claire Blaustein. Her story was originally part of NPR's Next Generation Radio project.

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BLOCK: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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