Scary Songs! - It's all in your head.

Jessica Morrison
23 January 2012

by Jessica Morrison , February 4, 2009

I don't know about you, but when I'm at the movies watching a freaky scene, my first instinct is to cover my eyes. When Heath Ledger's Joker pulled the "want to see a pencil disappear?" trick in The Dark Knight, I had my palms over my eyes so fast that I almost knocked the popcorn from my boyfriend's hand. Turns out, I might be better off covering my ears.

Did You Know: Music has the power to affect your emotions. It can make you feel happy, sad, peaceful, and in the case of our Joker example, terrified out of your gourd.

Have you ever gotten 'chills' from listening to a particular part of a song? These goose bumpy moments occur alongside changes in your heart rate and breathing. There is also more blood flow to the parts of your brain involved with rewards, motivation, emotion and arousal. Surprise,surprise — these are the same brain parts activated by food, addictive drugs and sex! While you're listening to a mellow song, you not only show your enjoyment with a relaxed smile on your face, your brain is also reacting. Music is literally like food for your ears.

How do we know when a song is scary? Tucked away around the centre of your brain is a small area called the amygdala.The amygdala is a curious little bit of machinery. Scientists have known for a while that the amygdala is important in detecting things like fear and other emotionally charged responses. Every time you look at someone's face, it's your amygdala that tells you if that person is scared or not.

Did You Know: Babies around nine months old can recognize the difference between sad and happy music.

If you run into the wrong end of an angry bear (that's the end with the teeth), your amygdala will fire off signals like nobody's business.Removing a chunk of it will most likely make someone the most docile,friendly person around, regardless of how aggressive they used to be.Violent, psychopathic behaviours (think Hannibal in Silence of the Lambs style) are often thought to be partly linked to disorders of the amygdala. Your amygdala can help you tell the difference between a squeal of delight (say, from reading this incredibly thought provoking and informative article), and a shriek of terror brought upon bad exam marks or the insane price of an XBOX 360 Pro. In other words, the amygdala is one busy brain bit.

Did You Know: When it comes to music, the amygdala plays a special role in determining what is 'scary'.

One of the best (albeit, not the most ethical) ways to figure out the function of a brain part is to remove it and see what difference this makes. This is the basic idea behind how scientists determined the role of the amygdala and freaky music detection. Sixteen people, missing their amygdalas, were given four songs to hear that expressed different emotions. People without amygdalas had no problem saying which songs were happy or sad, but when the scary music came up, it was another story - scary music just doesn't register as scary without a working amygdala.

Think about it: would the Joker be as freaky if Britney Spears tunes were playing in the background? Would the infamous shower scene in Psycho get to you if the screeching violins were replaced with Christmas carols? A knife-wielding maniac with 'Jingle Bells' playing just doesn't have the same ring to it. Remember this the next time you're at the movies when that suspenseful music starts up and cover your ears instead. Just be careful you don't spill the popcorn.

Learn More!

Check out one of the 'scariest' instrument out here: (caution- it actually is pretty freaky!)

Is your amygdala working? Can you tell which song is scary and which is happy? Check out each at:

Jessica Morrison

I am a children's author, zoologist and artist. You can find me online at or chat with me on Twitter! I'm @earthwards!

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