OK, film lovers, here’s something you didn’t know. Apparently we have been using the same piece of music to signify danger and dread for, like, eight hundred years. It’s a Gregorian chant called “Dies Irae.” You can find it in classical music. It makes an appearance in silent films. You’ll find it in Star Wars and It’s a Wonderful Life. I guess it’s pretty much everywhere.

Don’t believe me?

The folks at Vox have done the hard work here. This video shows you how the “Dies Irae” chant shows up over, and over, and over, and over. Forget about the “Amen break”… I think these four notes have to be the most referenced in history.

But why are these four notes so creepy?

The video goes into some detail there but they don’t really get into the deepest part of it. They say that we associate minor notes with peril and sadness. But is this a cultural thing or is it somehow hardwired into us? This blog article claims it’s a mix of both. Minor chords seem to have sonic similarities to the sounds humans make when they’re sad. We know that sad noises are roughly the same among all humans. Slow, minor chords sound like sad people. Or so they say.

But, among people in our time and place, that seems to be reinforced by music and movies that feed us happy, major chords with happy visuals while sad visuals are accompanied by minor chords.

I don’t think there’s enough science though about the odd persistence of this particular progression. There’s been so much music written in the last millennium, and these four notes keep showing up. The other day I heard them as part of one of the songs in selections from Rent. 

This is one of those weird cases where our hardwiring as humans gets exposed and it makes us all feel… just a little bit uncomfortable. We would like to think of ourselves as being masters of our own destinies. And yet, a short progression of four notes can program us to feel something in the pit of our stomachs.

Random happenstance, aliens, evidence of a deity?

When you’re examining something scientifically, you have to ask yourself, is it intentional or unintentional? With living things which have evolved, every feature, every bit of us, is either there because it gives us an advantage or because it doesn’t give us a disadvantage. We have eyes in the front of our faces because the ability to see what’s ahead of us is a good thing. Men have nipples because it doesn’t matter whether or not men have nipples.

So, is it some weird programming quirk that these notes are creepy, or is there an advantage to it? Way back in our evolution, was there an animal that made this call and we evolved to avoid it? I’m not sure we’ll ever know the answer there.

Of course some people will tell you that this kind of specificity is evidence that humans were designed, either by extraterrestrials or by a deity. While I don’t indulge in religious discussion on this blog, it does make one think a little bit.

And, as I mull the whole thing over in my head, my sense of dread only increases, so this music obviously does its job.

About the Author

Stuart Sweet
Stuart Sweet is the editor-in-chief of The Solid Signal Blog and a "master plumber" at Signal Group, LLC. He is the author of over 8,000 articles and longform tutorials including many posted here. Reach him by clicking on "Contact the Editor" at the bottom of this page.