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"Dies irae, dies illa" from the original Gregorian chant, with three variations from animation, theatre, and film

"This Easter egg of a melody has been used by multiple composers over the years as a musical shorthand, or word, for death, doom and gloom, the creeps."
David W. Collins, The Soundtrack Show, "Doom and Gloom: Music has a word for 'Death'"
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When composers want to create the impression of impending death and doom in their score, they often quote or reference the first four to eight notes of Dies Irae, Dies Illa (the Gregorian chant, not the Mozart or Verdi versions). This Standard Snippet has been used across decades of scores ranging from Silent Movie soundtracks to modern media medleys, and in centuries of Classical Music compositions.

The four note phrase "dies irae" starts on one note (usually F), then half-step down, half-step up to the first note, one-and-a-half-steps down. The descending notes and minor key create a somber, ominous feel. It can be instrumental or vocal, with or without the Ominous Latin Chanting, but it always sounds like something isn't right.

Dies Irae, Dies Illa quotes and references can create a sad, gloomy, or dark atmosphere. Overt, bombastic quotes may signal that characters are in a life-or-death situation or reveal that someone has met their end. Subtle references may shift the key, change the timing, play it backwards, or bury the notes underneath a happy-seeming bright melody to hint at unseen danger. The four notes of "dies irae" are most frequently quoted, and are sometimes followed by "dies illa" to create an eight note quote. The use of Dies Irae, Dies Illa in the requiem mass for funerals gave it a lasting association with death, further cemented by repeated quotes throughout the centuries.

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The Latin phrase "dies irae, dies illa" means "day of wrath and doom impending" in the Vatican-approved adaptation. literal  The original Dies Irae, Dies Illa is a Gregorian chant about the Last Judgment set to the words of a 13th century Latin sequence. Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique version brought it to the forefront of musical thought and is what most later references are based on.

This trope is about using or deliberately referencing a specific melody which originated as a Gregorian chant. It is not about other works with "dies irae" in their titles or derived from the same Latin text sequence. This trope does not include Mozart and Verdi's compositions with the same name and text because they do not use the original melody. Similar tunes need evidence that the composers were intentionally inspired by the original Dies Irae, Dies Illa.

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Subtrope of Standard Snippet and Mood Motif; may be used as a Leitmotif. Compare "Pachelbel's Canon" Progression and Also sprach Zarathustra.

The Latin "dies" is two syllables and not to be confused with the single syllable English "dies," even though its use here is deadly. Also not to be confused with the Visual Novel Dies Irae.


Examples:

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    Anime 

  • Attack on Titan: Many of the opening themes (openings 1,2, 3, and 5) are based on the Dies Irae, with descending thirds and ascending seconds. As the series goes on and the themes switch from death and hell, to war and monstrosity, the Dies Irae is no longer in the openers.
    • There is a clear Dies Irae in the Survey Corps theme, which probably helps remind the viewer that death for a Scout is always around the corner.
  • "Secrets of the Shizuma Drive" from the soundtrack of the Giant Robo: The Day the Earth Stood Still OVA series is a completely new arrangement of Dies Irae by Masamichi Amano, but it quotes the original Gregorian chant right at the end (time 2:07).

    Films — Animated 
  • The LEGO Movie: Score by Mark Mothersbaugh. The four notes are used as a leitmotif for Big Bad Lord Business, including during his entrance in the prologue and shortly after he kills Vitruvius.
  • The Lion King (1994): Score by Hans Zimmer. After Scar orders the hyenas to kill Simba, Simba tries to flee for his life, but immediately runs into a dead end. The brass section blasts the four notes of "dies irae" to indicate Simba is facing possible death. Much later, the eight notes of Dies Irae, Dies Illa are played quietly on high strings and repeated three times during the scene where Scar prods Simba to tell the lionesses who is responsible for Mufasa's death.
  • My Little Pony: Equestria Girls: Scored by William Anderson.
    • The first film: The four notes play repeatedly at a fast pace as Princess Twilight and her friends chase after Snips and Snails, who have just abducted Spike and are taking him to Sunset Shimmer. Ironically, it's then revealed Sunset had no intention of hurting Spike and was just using him as bait, releasing him upon request. A soft singular dies irae plays shortly afterward when Sunset reminds Twilight that her window to return to Equestria is fading.
    • Friendship Games: The four notes of dies irae are used several times throughout the film to represent Principal Cinch when she threatens to use her position to crush Twilight's dreams. They then play repeatedly as the newly transformed Midnight Sparkle begins tearing open holes in reality. Shortly afterwards, a gentle dies irae, dies illa plays as Sunset finds Twilight's dropped amulet, and again when Sunset is able to talk Twilight/Midnight down and Twilight accepts her offer of friendship.
    • Legend of Everfree: The four notes play twice as Gloriosa Daisy reaches to grab the magical geodes that transform her into the villain Gaea Everfree. They play again as Twilight attempts to use a dangerous amount of magic that threatens to let Midnight Sparkle consume her.
    • Forgotten Friendship: During the climax, the four notes dominate the score as Wallflower attempts to blast the main characters with the Memory Stone, only for Sunset to take the bullet and have her own memories violently extracted.
  • The Nightmare Before Christmas: Dies Irae, Dies Illa is quoted and referenced throughout Danny Elfman's score, given that most of the inhabitants of Halloween Town are, well, dead and undead.
    Erik Hare: The "Day of Wrath" was never more fun and uplifting!
    • When Oogie Boogie realizes Sally used her "sexy" detached leg to distract him while freeing the kidnapped Santa Claus, Oogie Boogie's wrath is highlighted by the bombastic four note "dies irae."
    • "Jack's Lament" adapts the tune into a waltz as Jack sings about no longer taking pleasure in Halloween hijinks. With italics for the variations on dies irae:
      Oh, some-where deep
      in-side of these bones
      an emp-ti-ness
      be-gan to grow
    • "Sally's Song" inverts the reference to rise instead of fall as she despairs in song over her unspoken love for Jack.
    • "Making Christmas," uses the Dies Irae melody to signal impending doom as the residents sing as they prepare to unleash a nightmarish version of Christmas.
    • "Jack and Sally's Song," the Final Love Duet between Jack and Sally, has a six-note variation:
      As a-ny-one could see
      We're sim-ply meant to be
    • What makes the use of this trope even better in this particular film is that the four-note version of this motif is also the main motif of the Ukrainian Bell Carol: the perfect motivic choice for a movie that is equally Halloween- and Christmas-themed.
  • Onward: Score by Jeff and Mychael Danna. The cassette Barley loads into his van as he prepares to sacrifice it starts out with an electric guitar rendition of dies irae.
  • In The Princess and the Frog, the Villain Song ("Friends on the Other Side") gradually resolves into a jazzy version of dies irae as Dr. Facilier casts his spell and the visuals get increasingly psychedelic.
  • The conquistador Hernan Córtez from The Road to El Dorado has Dies Irae as his Leitmotif to emphasise how much of an impending doom he is as he's approaching to attack El Dorado.
  • Wish Dragon: Scored by Philip Klein. An extended version of dies irae (with the first two notes repeated) plays a few times as Pockets escapes with Long's teacup while Mr. Wang, whom he shoved off the scaffolding from a great height, lays dying.
  • Wreck-It Ralph: Scored by Henry Jackman. As Ralph reaches the top of the tower in the game "Hero's Duty" to receive the Medal of Heroes, a triumphant fanfare begins playing with dies irae repeating underneath it, a reminder that Ralph is still surrounded by the eggs of vicious Cybugs, one of which he's about to step on...

    Films — Live-Action 
  • 10 Cloverfield Lane: Composer Bear McCreary opens the horror movie with an understated chunk of "dies irae," creating a deathly mood.
  • Batman Film Series:
    • Batman (1989): Composed by Danny Elfman; a fast-paced repeating dies irae, dies illa makes up much of the backing of the track "Descent in Mystery", which plays as Batman drives Vicki through the dark woods and into the hidden Batcave, creating a unsettling atmosphere around the location.
    • Batman Returns: Composed by Danny Elfman; the four notes make several appearances during the Red Triangle Gang's introductory attack, most prominently as a fire-breathing member in a devil costume torches a department store. It later appears when Selina is driving towards the tree-lighting ceremony to assist in the abduction and eventual murder of the Ice Princess, though she wasn't aware Penguin intended to kill her.
    • Batman Forever: An In-Universe usage; Wayne Manor's doorbell is a major-key version of the four dies irae notes.
  • Close Encounters of the Third Kind: In John Williams's score, "Dies irae" sounds when bright lights are seen clearly approaching the encampment to give the scene an eerie tension as people start screaming.
  • Crimson Peak: A soft echoing use of Dies Irae, Dies Illa, which was originally a funeral requiem, plays in Fernando Velazquez's score beneath Edith discussing her mother's funeral.
  • Friday the 13th Part V: A New Beginning: Scored by Henry Manfredini. Dies irae is quoted during Tommy's nightmare of encountering Jason.
  • The Grand Budapest Hotel: Scored by Alexandre Desplat. A drum-based dies irae is mixed in as Dmitri stalks Agatha down the halls of the hotel in the track "A Troops Barracks (Requiem for the Grand Budapest)".
  • Groundhog Day: Scored by George Fenton. A somber variation plays as Phil (unsuccessfully) attempts to break the "Groundhog Day" Loop via suicide.
  • Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets: John Williams. Heard as Harry and Ron are desperately trying to escape the Forbidden Forest while Aragog's spider children are closing in on them.
  • Home Alone: John Williams. As Kevin and his brother are watching Old Man Marley, who they think killed his family years ago, he looks up at them, and dies irae plays as they duck into hiding.
  • It's a Wonderful Life: Score by Dimitri Tiomkin. A quiet instrumental "dies irae" plays as George goes to the snowy bridge, preparing to throw himself off of it.
  • Jaws: The iconic Threatening Shark motif by John Williams sometimes gains an additional note to become "dies irae," prominently heard in "The Pier Incident, usually when the shark is closing in on its intended victims. Death is coming.
  • Ju-on: The main theme consists the first several notes of Dies Irae, appropriate for a film about a vengeful ghost and her curse inflicted on those entering the house.
  • Jurassic Park: Score by John Williams. The cue "High Wire Stunts" has a repeated dies irae as Grant and the kids are scrambling over the perimeter fence just as Ellie starts powering them back up, nearly killing Tim as the power surge catches him still on the fence. And then Ellie finds herself confronting a Velociraptor. A similar repeated dies irae appears earlier in the film ("Incident on Isla Nublar") as Ellie and Muldoon arrive at the aftermath of the T. rex's attack on the tour vehicles, finding Gennaro's remains and a grievously injured Malcolm.
  • The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit: All scores by Howard Shore.
    • The Fellowship of the Ring:
      • "Dies irae" appears in the score as Bilbo's ring tempts him one last time before he leaves the Shire. It weighs heavily on him as he slowly tips his hand to let it fall to the floor, right after it has been made clear that there is something dangerous about it and it is likely the One Ring.
      • Heard again as the Ringwraiths corner the hobbits at Weathertop.
      • Also reoccurs as part of the motif for the forces of Isengard.
    • The Return of the King: Heard as Gollum is leading Sam and Frodo up the cliffs near Minas Morgul and the armies of Mordor begin marching forth against Gondor.
    • An Unexpected Journey: A statement is heard during Balin's telling of the failed attempt to retake Moria, right as Azog the Defiler takes the head of Thrór. It's heard again as the company is before the Great Goblin and he mentions there's someone who would greatly desire Thorin's head.
  • Marvel Cinematic Universe:
    • Iron Man 3: Score: Brian Tyler.
      • Dies Irae is heard as Happy Hogan is spying on one of the Mandarin's agents making a drop at the Chinese Theatre, right before there's a massive explosion that nearly kills him there.
      • It appears again as Tony and Hardy are examining the site of the first EXTREMIS explosion, looking at the body shadows left on the walls.
    • Avengers: Infinity War: Score: Alan Silvestri. As Thor is explaining to the Guardians of the Galaxy how many Stones Thanos has and where he needs to go for the rest of them. As he mentions the Soul Stone, dies irae plays as the camera cuts to Gamora, foreshadowing her death, sacrificed by Thanos to gain the Stone.
    • The four dies irae notes are a prominent feature of Xu Wenwu's theme in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, composed by Joel P. West.
    • Spider-Man: Composed by Michael Giacchino.
      • Spider-Man: Homecoming: An inverted version of the four notes play in the background of Vulture's leitmotif as he reveals himself on the ferry and attacks the FBI agents.
      • Spider-Man: No Way Home: The four notes play as bell chimes during the Green Goblin's apartment attack, which ultimately leads to Aunt May's death.
  • In the trailer for Alex Garland's Men, Harper's voice echoing through a tunnel is used to create the four notes of dies irae, which repeat through the rest of the trailer.
  • Metropolis: Gottfried Huppertz's original score for the Silent Movie included a daunting rendition of Dies Irae to accompany the master of Metropolis's order to have his son followed and reported on.
  • Morbius: Score by Jon Ekstrand. The four notes of dies irae blare over the soundtrack as Morbius drinks red blood from a bag for the first time and simultaneously realizes that Milo has become a murderous vampire. They play again when the FBI raids Martine's apartment.
  • My Bloody Valentine: Score by Paul Zaza. Appears as a theme for the killer, such as when the police receive a box containing a human heart from a victim.
  • Nightmare Alley (2021): Composed by Nathan Johnson. The four notes of dies irae appear several times as a leitmotif for Lilith; they're especially prominent when she reveals the massive scar down her torso that she received from Grindle, playing several times consecutively.
  • In Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Hans Zimmer uses the notes "dies irae" during the scene where the Spaniards arrive to the fountain of youth, shooting the British officer holding up the Union Jack dead.
  • Psycho: Score by Bernard Herrmann. A repeating, backwards variation on dies irae plays as Marion is looking around her room in the Bates Motel, exploring the place where she will meet her end.
  • William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet uses a variation of the melody in its opening theme, "O Verona". An early draft also used the actual "Dies irae" lyrics.
  • Scream: The first four films were scored by Marco Beltrami, while the fifth was scored by Brian Tyler.
    • Scream 3: A soft dies irae plays as Sidney enters the Stab 3 set modeled after her Woodsboro neighborhood, where the first film's murders took place.
    • Scream 4: The first four notes are played repeatedly and loudly as Ghostface murders Olivia.
    • Scream (2022): The four notes can be heard in the opening when Tara answers Ghostface's question on the actress who played Casey in Stab, referencing that Tara's about to take Casey's role in the story. Until she ends up survivng the attack, that is. It plays again when Wes is going about his routine to hint at Ghostface's possible presence. After a lengthy buildup, Ghostface indeed arrives and kills him.
  • The Screaming Skull uses it as a Leitmotif for the villain.
  • For the opening theme of The Shining, Stanley Kubrick hired Wendy Carlos to electronicize Hector Berlioz's "Dies irae" to set the grim mood of the film and foreshadow the doom to come. It gets an even darker reprise in the sequel, Doctor Sleep. Carlos had electronicized "Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary" for Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange, incorporating dies irae.
  • Sonic the Hedgehog 2: Score by Tom Holkenborg. The four notes are played as Robotnik devises a means to get himself back to Earth and continue his villainous scheme.
  • Star Wars: Composer John Williams references Dies Irae, Dies Illa throughout his scores for the trilogy films, and non-trilogy film composers reference it as well.
    • Attack of the Clones: Begins softly playing as Anakin admits to Padme that he slaughtered the Tusken raiders that kidnapped his mother, eventually morphing into "The Imperial March" and "The Emperor's Theme".
    • Revenge of the Sith: Heard repeatedly during Anakin's Betrayal, the execution of Order 66 and the slaying of the Jedi. Also makes a notable appearance as Obi-Wan discovers the security hologram of Vader's murders the temple.
    • Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, scored by composer Michael Giacchino instead of Williams:
      • "Jyn's Theme" is based on it, fitting for the daughter of the man who designed the Death Star.
      • Very prominent throughout the score in general, including as the Death Star prepares to fire on Jedha ("Star-Dust") and as Jyn and Cassian climb upwards to retrieve the plans ("The Master Switch").
      • Referenced in "Your Father Would Be Proud" after Jyn and Cassian have transmitted the Death Star plans to the Alliance and are watching the shock wave from the Death Star's superlaser strike bear down on them.
    • A New Hope:
    • The Force Awakens:
      • Rey's Theme incorporates it in the part played with chimes, along with additional allusions to The Imperial March and the Emperor's Theme.
      • The scene where Rey calls the Skywalker lightsaber to her uses the same "burning homestead" cue as Luke discovering his home destroyed in A New Hope, with "dies irae" marking the moment she ignites the lightsaber.
  • Superman: The Movie: (John Williams) A backwards dies irae begins playing as Jor-El walks out of the Council after they reject his findings on Krypton's fate, thus dooming their people and their planet to destruction and death.
  • The Car: Dies irae is used as the opening credits theme for the film as well as the Leitmotif of the titular Sinister Car.
  • Who Framed Roger Rabbit: Score by Alan Silvestri. The four notes are played several times in succession, each time by a different instrument, as Judge Doom reinflates his newly exposed toon form, just before he then reveals his identity as the killer of Eddie’s brother and tries to murder Eddie too.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Game of Thrones: Score by Ramin Djawadi. In the season 5 episode The Wars to Come, the "dies irae" plays beneath and foreshadows the result of Stannis's warning to Jon that if he can't convince Mance to bend knee to Stannis, he will have Mance burnt to death.
  • The Good Place: Score by David Schwartz. Dies irae is quoted twice back-to-back to introduce Shawn.
  • Kung Fu (2021): Score by Sherri Chung. A recurring motif throughout the series, used to represent moments of danger and death.
  • The Mandalorian: Score by Ludwig Göransson. Plays at the end of Luke Skywalker's Big Damn Heroes entrance as he reveals his face.
  • Squid Game has "Pink Soldiers", composed by 23 (Kim Sung-su), a recurring piece based on dies irae representing the faceless masked guards who administer "eliminations".
  • Stranger Things 3: Score by Michael Stein and Kyle Dixon. Dies irae is quoted several times consecutively when the Mind Flayer's avatar approaches Eleven.

    Music 
  • In the intro of Bronski Beat's "Smalltown Boy", Jimmy Somerville sings a falsetto rendition of the first four notes.
  • "Dead Elvis", a composition for solo bassoon (usually dressed as an Elvis Impersonator) and chamber ensemble, contains nods to "Dies Irae" as well as the King's hit "It's Now or Never".
  • Guru Josh's Signature Song "Infinity" uses a variation of this melody for its main riff.
  • Sergei Rachmaninoff was obsessed with the Dies Irae motif and worked it into many of his compositions, some of them related to death ("The Isle of the Dead") and others having nothing explicitly to do with it at all ("Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini," "Symphonic Dances").

    Theatre 
  • Stephen Sondheim quotes the melody in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street in the opening number "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd" in the section "Swing your razor wide, Sweeney, hold it to the skies." It remains prevalent throughout the rest of the play. In fact, the only character with a leitmotif that does not contain a reference to the Dies Irae is Anthony Hope, because he is the only character with a leitmotif who neither kills nor is killed, or both, by the end.
  • At the beginning of RENT's "La Vie Boheme," Mark's friends chant "Dies Irae" in the background while he stages a symbolic funeral for Bohemia as a response to Benny calling their culture dead.

    Video Games 

    Webcomics 
  • Actually forms an in-universe plot point in a Pibgorn storyline. The music forms the opening text of the novel The Borgia Cantus. When Pibgorn finally reads the book and sings the first two lines aloud, the vast numbers of demons Drusilla had trapped inside the book escape, threatening to cause The End of the World as We Know It.

    Western Animation 
  • Cat Burglar: Composed by Christopher Willis. In one potential ending, where Rowdy is sent to a Fire and Brimstone Hell, dies irae, dies illa plays as his soul plummets into the inferno.
  • Family Guy: In the episode "It Takes a Village Idiot, and I Married One", after Stewie plays a poorly-written song Peter made on the piano and everyone laughed at it, an elderly Peter announces that it was God laughing, not Stewie. He dies of a heart attack as Dies Irae plays. (This was a parody of Amadeus.)
  • Dies irae is a staple soundtrack of numerous Looney Tunes cartoons composed by Carl W. Stalling, Milt Franklyn and William Lava, used to represent danger, injury or death. The revival series Looney Tunes Cartoons, composed by Carl Johnson and Joshua Moshier, similarly uses the motif on a frequent basis.
  • My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic: Composed by William Anderson.
    • The four notes appear in "Boast Busters" when Trixie first mentions the monstrous ursa major.
    • In "The Crystal Empire -- Part 2", the four notes play as Twilight and Spike look down into Sombra's hidden staircase.
    • Appears in both parts of "The Cutie Map" as a leitmotif for Starlight Glimmer after she's revealed as a villain.
    • "A Hearth's Warming Tail" averts the "deathly" part of the trope by using a major-key version of the four dies irae notes as part of the musical base for the carol "Hearth's Warming Eve is Here Once Again".
    • Played for Laughs in "The Gift of the Maud Pie", where it plays as Rarity experiences some mild Sanity Slippage watching Maud and Pinkie inspect each other's presents for a painfully long time. It later appears in a more serious context when Maud resolves to retrieve Pinkie's party cannon.
    • In "The Parent Map", dies irae plays as Starlight and Sunburst discover the iron gate in front of Sire's Hollow, hinting at the unhappy changes since their last visit to the town.
    • In "Molt Down", dies irae is heard when the roc releases Rarity and Zecora, sending them plummeting towards apparent doom.
    • Appears in "What Lies Beneath" when the students enter the mysterious cave underneath the school, which winds up nearly trapping them.
  • In The Simpsons episode "Treehouse of Horror X", scored by Alf Clausen, an inverted version of the four dies irae notes are played as the Simpsons are stalked by the mysterious, hook-wielding figure who knows they ran over Flanders in the segment "I Know What You Diddily-Iddily-Did".


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