The sequence is the first four notes of “Irae dies“ or “The Day of Wrath”, a 19-verse chant commonly attributed to the Catholic friar Thomas of Celano for funeral masses in the 13th century. Both Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Giuseppe Verdi later used it as part of their “Requiem”, and the original 17 stanzas of the chant are still used in the chant. traditional Latin Catholic mass; one has since been removed and the other replaced.
Berklee College of Music professor Dr. Alex Ludwig continues to work list of over 200 use cases”Irae dies“ in film and television. He spoke with WBUR in Boston about how the structure of a simple melody is perfect for moments like this. “These first two notes are half a step apart, which is the closest interval we have,” he said at about the four-minute mark. “When you play them in close succession, we feel that dissonance.”
Minor keys also confuse us, according to Ludwig, who continues: “When we look at these four notes as a whole, from the first to the last note outlines a minor third … we usually associate it with sadness with darkness.” Peter O’Dowd of WBUR believes that nearly a century of use has given the already sinister sequence even more weight in people’s minds. “We were trained, without knowing it, to perceive it as scary music because it appears so often in pop culture,” he told Ludwig.
The next time it happens – whether it’s in Close Encounters of the Third Kind or Clerks 2 – you’ll know where it came from.