Monday Notes

Profondo rosso, how to create a horror soundtrack

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[Monday Note No. 145] Profondo rosso is a famous horror film by Dario Argento, the soundtrack played by the Goblins is perhaps even more famous. Let us try to analyse it to find out how the ideal soundtrack for a horror film is composed.

Often the soundtrack remains on the sidelines and is only a background to the scenes of the film. However, the music sometimes becomes a fundamental part of the film, so that we can no longer imagine a certain film without its music.

Just to give a few examples: can we imagine 2001 A Space Odyssey without the music of Strauss and Ligeti? Or think of the film Titanic without Celine Dion’s song?

In rare cases, the music becomes more important and better known than the film itself. In the case of Profondo rosso, the music is the absolute protagonist. Here are some elements that can explain the effectiveness of the soundtrack played by the Goblins for Dario Argento’s film.

First, we have to consider that Dario Argento’s Profondo rosso is a horror film: fear is an uncontrollable and simple emotion, a primordial animal instinct.

It is certainly easier to set fear to music than the feeling of the protagonist of Once Upon a Time in America when he thinks ‘I love you, but now I’m going to hurt you to get you away from me, for your own good’.

Imagine being a musician and being asked to set such a feeling to music. How can music express such complex concepts and emotions? It is much easier to set to music simple and basic emotions, such as love, hate, fear.

A soundtrack to turn fear into music

Let us therefore see how the Goblins set fear to music. The famous theme of Profondo rosso uses three very specific musical devices.

1) Obsessiveness: the monster that chases you and never gets tired

In our nightmares, the monster that pursues us is always resolute and determined. To express obsessiveness, the soundtrack of Profondo rosso is composed of a continuous series of eights notes. The melody is obsessive, devoid of pauses and afterthoughts.

colonna sonora Profondo rosso tema principale spartito
The main theme of Profondo rosso

The phrasing is dense, without pauses. The melody is therefore pressing, tight. We now see a second musical device, used to make the music even more disturbing.

2) An odd time: so I cut your breath

Any piece of music has a base tempo, the most common being 4/4 and 3/4. Usually the tempo set at the beginning applies for the entire piece. Profondo rosso on the other hand alternates even measures (4/4) with an odd measure (3/4). This odd-numbered element breaks the uniformity of the piece, and somehow takes our breath away by making the music even more haunting.

Colonna sonoradi profondo rosso, musica per un film horror
The piece alternates between the 4/4 regular measure and a 3/4 measure

3) Dynamics. The steps of the approaching monster

In the soundtrack of Profondo rosso the dynamics are used masterfully. At minute 1’12” we can hear that the piece empties out and the melody starts again on a pianissimo, and then gradually grows.

This device brings to mind the footsteps of our pursuer approaching, inexorable. The three key elements of Profondo rosso are therefore the dense phrases, the odd time signature and the dynamics that drop suddenly and then slowly grow. This is what makes this track an ideal soundtrack for a horror film.

To complete the musical analysis of Profondo rosso, a few words on the harmony. It is a harmonically very simple piece, played entirely on just two chords: Am and F. The second theme still uses the Am chord, while the B part is based on the F chord.

Il secondo tema di profondo rosso, la colonna sonora film horror
Second theme and part B

This simplicity of harmony brings us back to the beginning of our discussion: fear is a simple feeling that we all know. You don’t need many chords, just a few notes, as long as they are obsessive, pressing, ruthless. Just like the murderer in Profondo rosso.

Until next Monday!

Profondo Rosso full cover

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