Music Prof. Neil Lerner on the Sound That Scares Us All

Neil Lerner gives lecture standing at podium

We’ve all heard “The Drone of Death” and we all know it means something bad is about to happen.

Those long, sustained tones have been amping up the tension in movies since the early 1930s.

Wall Professor of Music Neil Lerner recently appeared in a video about the subtle -- and sometimes not-so-subtle -- audio cue.

“It’s the sound of dread,” Lerner told Adam Epstein, a Quartz reporter. “And that’s something that I think triggers fear in all kinds of creatures.”

According to Lerner, a musicologist who co-edited the book “Music in the Horror Film: Listening to Fear,” the 1931 film “Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde” was the first to use the drone to trigger unease.

Today, it’s everywhere; popping up in dramas like “The Social Network” or even last week’s episode of “Game of Thrones.”

The “drone of death” can vary in tone and volume -- low, high, quiet or deafening -- but it has the same effect on viewers.

“Drones build up tension in their unwavering qualities,” Lerner said, “that reaction of unease; that’s what it’s there to do.”

Watch the video -- but more important, listen closely -- to the story on Quartz.


  • May 10, 2019