What's the music used in films to represent spiders?
April 23, 2006 9:36 AM   Subscribe

What instrument is used to make the fast, tinkly, skin-crawling picking-on-a-harp high-pitched sound effect that accompanies spiders and other insects in movies?

Is it in fact a harp?

I seem to recall it being used in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom in the "It's not fortune cookies" scene. I know it's been used in The Simpsons many, many times. I'm struggling to come up with a definite example, but c'mon... you must know what I mean.

Also, any ideas who first used this sound effect?
posted by hoverboards don't work on water to Media & Arts (17 answers total)
 
It's difficult to say without hearing it, but it could a harpsichord, saw, theramin or xylophone...
posted by Lillitatiana at 9:42 AM on April 23, 2006


If I'm correctly guessing what you're getting at, the effect is called pizzicato, and it's basically created by plucking the strings of a violin/cello/what-have-you that you'd normally play with a bow. I'm having a helluva time finding a sample online, but here's a video of a cellist describing and demonstrating it.
posted by pocams at 9:50 AM on April 23, 2006


Here's a pretty good example - the main melodic instrument there is pizzicato strings. There's also quite a few in the iTunes store - say, this or this one.
posted by pocams at 9:58 AM on April 23, 2006


No, it's not pizzicato (at least, it's nothing like that sample). It's not music at all really. It sounds to me like plucking, and I'd guess it's at something like 10 plucks per second, at random pitches.
posted by hoverboards don't work on water at 10:04 AM on April 23, 2006


It's possible you're thinking of the sounds made when you scrape piano strings in the upper register.

Here's an example.
posted by turaho at 10:07 AM on April 23, 2006


Maybe not pizzicato on the playable part of the string, but rather above the nut up by the tuning pegs on a violin, or below the bridge? That makes a weird high-pitched plickety-plickety noise that I am almost sure has been used to accompany scenes of creepy crawlies.
posted by letourneau at 10:13 AM on April 23, 2006


Maybe not pizzicato on the playable part of the string, but rather above the nut up by the tuning pegs on a violin, or below the bridge? That makes a weird high-pitched plickety-plickety noise

That sounds about right. In fact, a google search for "pizzicato spider" hints at it being spot on. I would've thought this was a better known mini-leitmotif. Sorry pocams, you were right!
posted by hoverboards don't work on water at 10:23 AM on April 23, 2006


Anything on this recent post to the blue ring a bell?
posted by Fejery at 10:25 AM on April 23, 2006


Without watching the movie or listening to the soundtrack, I would bet that it is as letourneau explains, since John Williams usually has his soundtracks arranged for standard orchestra instrumentation, which means no synths, electric guitars, etc.

Maybe it's some sort of col legno battuto sul ponticello thing with the strings. That's tapping the wood of the bow against the strings near the bridge, for all the non string players or Italians.

But, again, I don't remember the soundtrack, so this might all be wrong.
posted by billtron at 10:26 AM on April 23, 2006


i know exactly what you're talking about, but i'm not 100% sure of how it is done commercially. I know i've replicated the sound fairly well by hammering on and off guitar strings, generally higher up the neck.
posted by indiebass at 12:07 PM on April 23, 2006


I think letourneau has it. Plucking above the fretboard on a guitar is pretty common too.
posted by danb at 12:16 PM on April 23, 2006


Perhaps it's a Waterphone?
posted by spacelux at 1:21 PM on April 23, 2006


Spacelux has it right, it's a waterphone. I hadn't been able to remember what it was called for years and years, only that a composer had once come to my middle school career day and mentioned that there was an instrument that created the creepy sound and that part of the word he used was "water."
posted by awesomebrad at 1:49 PM on April 23, 2006


I have been wanting to ask this for the longest time, but couldn't get up the courage to try and describe the sound. It's not necessarily associated with spiders and creepy-crawlies in my mind. Bless you for the question and the answer.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 2:16 PM on April 23, 2006


(Amusingly, the sounds made by the creepy spider-robots in Minority Report are actual sounds made by spiders; jumping spider courtship song, to be precise.)
posted by metaculpa at 2:43 PM on April 23, 2006


Perhaps it's a Waterphone?

That's a different, related sound. The waterphone sound is continuous, not discrete. It evokes unreality and fear. I think of it as "the X-files sound".
posted by hoverboards don't work on water at 4:40 PM on April 23, 2006


I recall a documentary where the sound was produced by something bowed, something that looked very much like a Waterphone. I'm sure such an instrument could be played in a variety of ways, one of which might produce the sound in question.

I think I've also heard that it's a bowed psaltery, but don't recall where I heard this.

Could be bowed piano strings too, I suppose. Whatever the case, I'd bet that it involves a bow and strings or pegs of metal.
posted by treepour at 11:24 AM on April 24, 2006


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