Nine Inch Nails / Pixies / Nirvana
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‘Tis the season of spooky monsters, terrifying ghouls, and blood-sucking vampires — all of which need an equally scary soundtrack to really hammer in a fright.

Pandora used its Music Genome Project to analyze the top 10 scariest songs of all time, and many of the titles might surprise you. Audiophiles may be shocked not to see Ozzy Osbourne, Alice Cooper, or Marilyn Manson anywhere on the list. The songs that did land on the list are not just based on what gave Pandora staff a fright, but on science.

“Scary songs use key, tempo, and timbre to create tension and manipulate the way the listener interacts with sound,” says Steve Hogan, Pandora’s Director of Music Analysis. “This includes the use of what scientists call ‘non-linear’ sound. Non-linear sounds are generally scratchy, disorganized, and chaotic, like the sound of vocal cords vibrating violently during a blood-curdling scream. Humans (and many other species) are hard-wired to perceive such sounds as life-threatening.”

Here’s Pandora’s ranking of the top 10 scariest songs of all time and the company’s explanation of why each made the list:

1. Nine Inch Nails, “The Becoming”
“This song makes use of distorted ‘non-linear’ instrument timbres and effects, which humans are programmed to find distressing. This contrasts with the hushed + screaming vocals which creates a suspenseful and unsettling mood. Melodically, this song makes use of an exotic-sounding scale, which features a major third, but a flat second scale degree, which gives a dissonant quality.”

2. Pixies, “The Happening”
“Like ‘The Becoming,’ there is more use of distorted, ‘non-linear’ sound along with aggressive vocal attitude, and this one is in a minor key, which is usually perceived as a ‘dark’ sound.”

3. Bauhaus, “Dark Entries”
“The mood of this song is dominated by the tonal quality of the instruments, including distorted riffs and scratchy guitar solos. There is a high level of dissonance between the chromatically descending guitar line and the vocal, which is not a melody exactly, but a series of monotonic, almost unrelated pitches that clash with the accompaniment. The lo-fi aesthetic and freaky vocal delivery makes for an unsettling experience, like being chased through the woods by a chainsaw-wielding maniac.”

4. Joy Division, “Transmission”
“The combination of lo-fi production, synth pads, and an exaggerated reverb effect creates a menacing, claustrophobic quality. The song finishes with an intense wall of sound, which along with the staccato and insistent bass guitar rhythm makes this a truly anxiety-provoking track.”

5. Lamb of God, “Contractor”
“Due to its sheer aggression, it’s a typical example of the death metal genre: it’s loud and distorted, includes a fast tempo, makes use of technically proficient drumming and guitar riffs, and is rhythmically complex in the form of shifting tempos and syncopated hits. The vocals are extreme and gritty and a good example of the ‘death metal growl.’ Lyrically it’s confrontational and threatening.”

6. Tool, “Aenima”
“Similar to the Lamb of God [song] in its aggressive, confrontational vocal attitude, ‘Aenima’ also features loud distorted tones throughout, but there is some dynamic range too, with some quieter, more drone-like stretches.”

7. Nirvana, “Heart-Shaped Box”
“Like many Nirvana songs, this one defies pop conventions. The harmonic progression is difficult to pin down as major or minor, but there is an unmistakable dark and menacing quality to the music. There is a dissonance between the vocal melody and instrumental parts that is disorienting and can be a bit disturbing to the listener. It makes use of heavy, distorted tones, but also features more quiet, brooding stretches.”

8. Korn, “Bottled Up Inside”
“This song relies on loud, distorted timbres, and some ‘non-linear’ tones to create an aggressive, frightening effect that will transport you straight to the dungeon of despair. The relentless pounding of the drums and the deep, sludgy doom-guitar riffs give this song a truly menacing and diabolical feel.”

9. A Perfect Circle, “Thinking Of You”
“This song has a creepy combination of tones, including heavier distorted ones, alongside more ambient and suspenseful tones that will leave you convinced the demons are watching you. The melody at times makes use of an exotic-sounding scale that adds to the mood — the first two vocal notes you’ll hear form a ‘diminished 5th,’ a musical interval which since the 18th century has been nicknamed ‘Diabolus in musica, or ‘The Devil in music’ due to its dissonant quality.”

10. Whitechapel, “Eternal Refuge”
“‘Eternal Refuge’ is another death metal entry, therefore it’s extreme in its volume and distortion, with that famous ‘death metal growl.’ Try putting this on at home in the dark.”

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