Hearing with Your Eyes: Science Fiction Television and Hearing the Unseen

By: Reba A. Wissner (Montclair State University) //

Hearing the unseen through non-diegetic music is nothing new to film. Although John Williams made the technique famous in his scores for Jaws (1975) and Star Wars (1977), it dates back to horror films of the 1930s and radio dramas of the 1940s. Early radio plays were dubbed “The Theater of the Mind” because listeners had to visualize what was happening. In a radio horror series such as Suspense, it was conventional for the scary thing to be heard through music before it was heard through words. But the evocation of terror and dread through music didn’t start with radio, film, or television. Known as ombra, this type of music came from opera of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, usually in scenes where supernatural or mythical beings appear and are musically dramatized.

The beginning of the “Wolf’s Glen Scene” from Carl Maria von Weber’s opera Der Freischütz (1821). Samiel, the huntsman who casts magic bullets, speaks rather than sings in this scene. His music is first introduced in the overture.

This foreshadowing technique functions in the same way in science-fiction television. One of the most prevalent types of science-fiction television shows in the 1950s and early 1960s was the anthology, a series of episodes that feature new characters and new stories every week. In shows such as One Step Beyond (1959–1961), music first presented in the main title theme returns each time there’s a supernatural element, often unseen. At the time, television was considered a serious competitor to film, and television producers sought to distinguish the newer medium. Because television episodes were much shorter, music had to get straight to the point. In film, most music cues are several minutes long, but in television the cues are often less than a minute each, sometimes measured in tens of seconds. Both the story and the music have very little time to convey their meaning. 

For an hour-long television program in the 1950s and 1960s, the total runtime of music averaged between 19 and 22 minutes. In a non-anthology series, the musical material could be reused and altered over the course of various episodes, and regular viewers would understand the composer’s intent. For example, in The Invaders (1967–1968), about a man searching for aliens that look like humans, the descending half-step theme in the opening credits serves as an aural suggestion that aliens are nearby. Even the television promos use this motive to represent the man’s quest to reveal the identities of the alien beings.

Opening title for The Invaders. The descending half-step musical theme from 0:280:49 indicates the presence of the aliens, even though they are not yet on the screen.

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 include dissonance, 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.

These musical codes developed over decades—in some cases even centuries—of musical multimedia and were repurposed for the twentieth century. The Theremin, for example, played using static electricity (i.e., without the player actually touching the instrument), has developed various connotations of strangeness. Although the instrument was not created for the purpose of depicting aliens, it became associated with extraterrestrials through 1950s science-fiction film. Eerie musical sounds such as siren-like oscillations, according to one study by Daniel Blumstein, seem scary to us because they are biologically ingrained, deriving from the sound animals make when their young are being attacked.

Music can also tell us about unseen, violent events that could not otherwise be shown on television in the 1950s and 1960s. In The Outer Limits episode “The Invisible Enemy” (1965), for example, the music sets up the element of danger as the astronaut explores Mars. He is attacked by a mysterious creature we never see, nor do we witness the attack. In The Twilight Zone episode “The New Exhibit” (1964), we do not see the murderer, we only hear stinger chords (sharp chords that are meant to shock the ear—think Psycho) as people are killed.

Music lets us hear the unseen and use our imaginations, especially when paired with images in film and television. Take, for instance, the shadow in The Outer Limits episode “The Architects of Fear” (1963). We hear the stealthy lurking of an unseen monster, sometimes seeing only its shadow, yet the music frightens us by revealing there’s something there. In fact, during the episode’s premiere, some stations deemed the monster too scary to show on television, so they blacked out its face each time it appeared; the music had to encourage the viewer to imagine what it looked like.

On the other hand, The Twilight Zone episode “The Invaders,” which uses music and sound effects to anticipate the threat, sometimes also uses silence to punctuate the threat’s arrival.

Abbreviated version of The Twilight Zone “The Invaders.” At 0:31, there is silence, followed by music that enhances the arrival of the aliens through the repeated melody in the piano, even when we cannot see them.

Clearly, music does have the power to elicit fear, especially in the case of hearing something before seeing it. In fact, there is scientific evidence for this: studies have shown that music can influence what viewers see and sometimes can make scary things appear more threatening than they are. As a character in The Outer Limits said: “Anything that draws blood is not invisible.” So while we can see the effects of something dangerous and we can hear music that represents it, we cannot always see the thing itself.

For Discussion

  1. It is more acceptable now to see violence and monsters on television than in the 1950s and 1960s. What are some of the ways that music in recent television works to let us know there is a lurking danger even though we can already see it?
  2. What are some other ways that you can think of that music operates on television to tell us about something that is invisible, such as a character’s thoughts or emotions?

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