Remember when Mufasa died?
Or when Luke Skywalker’s aunt and uncle were killed? Or even when George Bailey decided he couldn’t bear to live anymore? These are some of the most grim, tragic moments in film history, but they have something else in common. Once you start paying attention, these four notes are everywhere And we’ve been associating them with death for almost 800 years. What you’re hearing in those movies is called the “dies irae,” A Gregorian chant created by Catholic monks around the 13th century. It was used for one specific mass: funerals. [Latin chant plays] “Dies irae” translates from Latin to “Day of Wrath.” That’s the day Catholics believe God will judge the living and the dead and decide whether they go to heaven or hell for eternity. It really is the sort of fire and brimstone passage that’s talking about the day of reckoning where in essence the decision is being made whether you’re going to heaven or you’re going to hell. That’s Alex Ludwig, a musicologist and professor from the Berklee College of Music who keeps a big list of dies irae references in movies. The musical material and the text combine together to create this sort of ominous sort of sense of dread. Over the next few hundred years, the Church’s influence spread considerably, and the Day of Wrath started popping up in works of art outside the church, like Mozart’s 1791 symphony “Requiem,” influenced by the music of funerals. In 1830, French composer Louis-Hector Berlioz took the dies irae’s cultural capital to a new level. In his “Symphonie fantastique,” he lifted the melody but left out the words. Berlioz’s story isn’t set in a church or funeral — it’s about an obsessive love, in which the main character dreams that the lover he murdered has come back as a witch to torment him. The movement is called “The Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath.” And so it’s set at midnight in a graveyard and there are all these creepy spooky pieces of music, including the dies irae. What better piece of spooky music to play? Because this is a piece of music that already had these connotations behind it. Other great composers added versions of the dies irae to their works too, like Hungarian composer Franz Liszt’s Totentanz, or Dance of the Dead, inspired by this medieval painting depicting suffering and death, or Giuseppe Verdi’s Messa da Requiem. And then we have the early silent films. Where the dies irae is then extracted even further and used as a sort of sample or sort of reference to dark, ominous actions taking place on screen. Silent films were often accompanied by full orchestras, playing songs that helped propel soundless stories along. Like 1927’s Metropolis, a silent German sci-fi about a dystopia full of robots and destruction — which uses the dies irae in a particularly dramatic moment. As films started incorporating sound, the dies irae kept being used as a shorthand for something grim. Like in It’s a Wonderful Life and Star Wars: A New Hope. But perhaps its most iconic use is in The Shining. Everyone knows The Shining is a horror film and it’s like, that’s the perfect signifier for the dies irae. The dies irae has come a long way from 13th-century funerals to scary movies. That’s because there’s something about those four notes that makes us feel uncomfortable. Let’s talk about the music. The chant is in what’s called Dorian mode — and we don’t have to dig into all the ancient modes like that — but today if you would play those first four notes you would say that that’s in a minor mode. Minor music has always had this connotation of sadness, of darkness. If you look at the actual notes, you’ll see that F and E are half steps apart, right next to each other. Our ears are trained not to like those sounds together. Plus, the notes descend, getting deeper as the phrase progresses. Musical lines that descend are sad whereas music that ascends, that rises, is much happier. Combine these three things together and you’ve got an inherently spooky song — even without all the fire and brimstone. If you talk to a music professor like Alex, they’ll tell you the dies irae is everywhere. And it is — but maybe not in places untrained ears will catch. The phrase has become so culturally ingrained that even a modified version — like the theme to The Exorcist — or a shortened version, like the Nightmare Before Christmas can suggest the same scary feeling. It’s just that it it fascinates me that this piece of music still gets used. I’m still hearing them. I’m still adding films to my list.