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What do The Lion King, Harry Potter, and Home Alone all have in common? A plucky young protagonist, for one. But there’s another, spookier thread that binds them: namely, the use of a certain melody in their film scores. That would be Dies Irae, which translates to “day of wrath.”
If you watch movies, there’s a very good chance you’ve heard Dies Irae at some point. This four-note melody, the first four notes of this chant, is often used in tense, sad, or scary scenes, either to accentuate the occurring drama or to foreshadow darkness ahead. But this is no recent trend—it’s a musical tradition that dates all the way back to the 13th century, and perhaps most notably appears in Mozart’s Requiem in D Minor.
But what exactly makes it sound so unsettling? And how did Dies Irae become one of the most quoted melodies of all time? Gather your courage, put on your headphones, and let’s dive in.
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If we were to list every single film that Dies Irae has been quoted in, we’d be here for hours—so here’s a timeline of some of its most famous film appearances. The video clips start at the exact moment that Dies Irae can be heard.
1946: It’s a Wonderful Life
1980: The Shining
1990: Home Alone
1993: The Nightmare Before Christmas (Composer Danny Elfman wasn’t subtle here—the song “Making Christmas” is a clear nod to Dies Irae from beginning to end.)
1994: The Lion King
2001: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
2007: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
2019: Frozen 2
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Sometimes described as a hymn, Dies Irae originated as a 13th-century Gregorian chant used in Catholic requiems or funeral masses. “Dies irae” are the first lyrics in that chant, and the often quoted, four-note melody sung on those lyrics is the Dies Irae most people are familiar with. Gregorian chant, named after Pope Gregory I, is the singing of Roman Catholic texts, without instrumental music as an accompaniment. Also called plainchant, it is monophonic, meaning it’s sung in unison, without harmonies.
There’s no clear answer on who originally wrote Dies Irae. Although it’s commonly ascribed to the Franciscan friar Thomas of Celano (pdf), some credit Latino Malabranca Orsini as the author. It’s used in the church today in the Liturgia Horarum—the daily prayers of the Church—for the last week of Ordinary time, to emphasize the beginning of the Advent season.
As the Church’s influence spread, so did Dies Irae. It soon began popping up in classical music, quoted by the likes of Berlioz, Liszt, Saint-Saëns, and Holst, among many others. Centuries later, it made its way into the orchestra pits of silent films, and its popularity among film score composers never went out of style.
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“It’s about judgment, about the end of the world. If you believe what it says, then we’re all stuffed.”
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“Dies Irae” makes frequent appearances in the New York Times crossword puzzle. One recent clue: “‘Dies __’: Latin hymn.”
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The short answer: music theory and social conditioning.
Many aspects of music are classified as either major or minor, such as keys, scales, and chords. To western ears, major often sounds happy, and minor usually sounds sad or moody. There is really no scientific truth to this, as our emotional associations with music are largely based on what we grew up hearing. For western audiences, that usually means hearing major-keyed songs during times of celebration (“Happy Birthday,” Mendelssohn’s “Wedding March”) and minor-keyed melodies in times of sorrow or trouble (Chopin’s “Funeral March,” Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony). The distinction between major and minor is based on the distance between notes; these distances are called intervals.
The four notes of Dies Irae contain two minor intervals: a minor second (the first two notes) and a minor third (the last two notes). To give you a better sense of what these sound like individually, you can find a minor second in the dread-filled Jaws theme—those two alternating notes make up a minor second interval. For a minor third, look no further than the opening notes of “The Star Spangled Banner.” The two descending notes that make up the first “Oh” are a minor third.
Put these two minor intervals together, and you have the perceived musical equivalent of a rain cloud.
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Musicologist and Berklee College of Music associate professor Alex Ludwig put together his own collection of Dies Irae film appearances, complete with an explanation of the three types you’re likely to hear: full statement, stinger, and ostinato.
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Dies Irae is just one of many tactics that film-score composers use to manipulate your emotions. Here are some other famous sounds that make moviegoers feel less than cheerful:
⚡️Drone: A vibrating hum of varied frequencies used to inspire dread in the audience, heard in movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Arrival, and The Dark Knight. In this video, Quartz reporter Adam Epstein talks to musicologist Neil Lerner about why drones get under our skin so easily.
🎼Bartók’s “Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta,” 3rd movement: If you’ve seen The Shining, you’re likely familiar with this extremely unnerving piece. The eerie, plinking xylophone and lilting dissonance in the strings are the perfect soundtrack to redrum.
👻Silence: A key ingredient to a good jump scare. When things get quiet—too quiet—the audience knows it’s about to be startled with a loud spook. It’s especially effective in movies where silence reigns supreme, like A Quiet Place, which only has about 90 lines of spoken dialogue.
💀Infrasound: Humans can’t hear infrasound since it exists at undetectable frequencies of 19 Hz and lower, but we can feel it in our bones. In nature it’s created by wind, earthquakes, and avalanches, and elephants also use infrasound to communicate over long distances. “In a good theater with a subwoofer,” filmmaker Gaspar Noé told Salon, “you may be more scared by the sound than by what’s happening on the screen.”
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The late Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki, who died on March 29, 2020, was widely considered one of the most respected and boundary-pushing contemporary composers. His award streak, including multiple Grammys, began early: He was only 25 when he claimed all three top awards at a young composers’ competition. How does one pull that off, you ask? He wrote one score with his right hand, one with his left, and asked a friend to write the third score so as not to reveal his own handwriting.
Penderecki had several ties to Dies Irae. Several of his compositions were featured in hit Hollywood films, including The Shining, and in 1967, he composed a major choral work titled “Dies Irae” dedicated to Holocaust victims. While the Dies Irae melody isn’t actually quoted, it’s a haunting, hair-raising work that perfectly encapsulates the Dies Irae spirit.
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If you can’t get enough Dies Irae, do we have a treat for you: Sequentia cyclica super Dies irae by the legendarily eccentric British composer Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji, eight hours of variations—very broadly speaking—on the theme. According to Wikipedia’s list, it’s the fourth-longest non-repetitive piano piece ever recorded or performed—just behind Sorabji’s Symphonic Variations for Piano (nine hours), and just ahead of his Études transcendantes (100) (seven hours). Other works by Sorabji occupy places seven through 10 on the list.
The demands of his work, enemies he made as an aggressive music critic, his reputation for extreme privacy, and some debate about whether he wanted his work performed at all meant that for much of his career Sorabji was more known than heard, but in the past few decades the cult of his admirers and interpreters has grown. Here’s Jonathan Powell’s recording released in January 2020.
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