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The Four Notes of Death

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 17, 2019

When something dark and ominous happens onscreen, there’s a good chance that the action is accompanied by a four-note snippet from the dies irae, a 13th-century Gregorian chant used at funerals. It shows up in The Lion King, The Good Place, Lord of the Rings, and It’s a Wonderful Life. This Vox video explores how this “shorthand for something grim” went from chant to Hollywood.

Think back to some of the most dramatic scenes in film history — from The Lion King, The Shining, It’s a Wonderful Life. Besides being sad or scary, they have something else in common: the dies irae. “Dies irae” translates from Latin to “Day of Wrath” — it’s a 13th-century Gregorian chant describing the day Catholics believe God will judge the living and the dead and send them to heaven or hell. And it was sung during one specific mass: funerals.

Alex Ludwig from the Berklee School of Music made a supercut of over 30 films that use dies irae.