New Avid Listener Essay: Reba Wissner, “Hearing with Your Eyes: Science Fiction Television and Hearing the Unseen”

For our penultimate Avid Listener essay of the year, we offer you: SCARY MONSTERS, AHHHHH!


Ahem. This week’s essay, by Reba Wissner, examines music that announces scary, unseen threats in television series such as The Twilight Zone. How do music cues for scary things in television shows work when (a) networks were not allowed to show the actual scary things and (b) television music cues had to be brief and effective?

Here’s a teaser: “Musical codes for unseen threats are conventional enough that listening to the sound without the picture reveals how the music alerts the viewer to the presence of something sinister. Common malevolent musical techniques include the use of low-pitched instruments, such as organ, cello, and bassoon, played in minor keys; ostinato melodies (melodies that repeat over and over in a single piece); simple and short melodies that move by step or half step; dissonant chords (stacks of notes that sound harsh or tense); rising or falling chromatic melodies (that is, by half steps); alternating minor seconds; and unusual instruments such as the Theremin. Musical codes for impending danger includedissonance, often paired with a low-pitched drone (a single note or pair of notes that remain static); ominous rising motives; minor second and tritone intervals; and siren-like oscillations. Each of these allow the viewer to see with their ears before they see with their eyes.”

You can read Reba’s entire essay here. By the end of this essay you may or may not be compelled to spend your summer watching re-runs of The Twilight Zone. I won’t judge you. But do carve out a bit of time to read our last essay of the year next week, Alexandra Apolloni’s take on gender imbalances in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s inductees.

The Avid Listener: Listen. Write. Discuss. Repeat.

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