The music from Lavender Town in the original series of Pokémon games is notorious for its singularly eerie and haunting sound. It has spawned at least one creepypasta to my knowledge, and has definitely become a meme in its own right. There is nothing paranormal going on here, though. The spooky atmosphere is created with a few basic musical elements.
The first aspect is texture. The track consists of three parts—one high and two low. The high part plays an arpeggio (a chord with each tone sounded separately: like plucking instead of strumming a guitar), while the two lower parts play the melody. Already, this is a departure from what most listeners are accustomed to: typically we expect to hear the melody in the uppermost voice, while the lower voices fill in the chords. It is sort of like telling a ghost story while holding a flashlight under your chin, in that it creates an unfamiliar atmosphere by reversing our expectations. Faces are usually illuminated from above, and melodies usually go above the chords. Also, a very hollow synthesizer sound is used. Much of the game uses sounds that approximate brass or electric guitars, but this sounds more like a slightly out-of-tune piano. That’s another example of the composer, Junichi Masuda, playing with our expectations.
So, what is it about that upper arpeggio that makes it sound so creepy? In addition to the weird digital instrument used and the endless repetition, the notes themselves contribute to the atmosphere. Specifically, it contains a Viennese trichord—a group of three notes associated with the Second Vienna School (a group of composers active about 100 years ago in Vienna, notably Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern). The Viennese trichord was designed to sound very dissonant and unstable by incorporating the two most unstable intervals in Western music, the tritone and minor second, along with a perfect fourth. Here, it appears as C, F#, and G, or <0,1,6> in set notation. Masuda added the note B to this, creating what I’m calling the ‘Lavender Town tetrachord’ of C, F#, G, and B, or <0,1,5,6>. This additional note adds two very stable intervals, the major third and another perfect fourth. It also creates another minor second, though. The overall effect is a series of four notes that sound kind of consonant and familiar, but kind of not.
The last two aspects are counterpoint (how the three individual parts interact with each other) and part writing (how the parts function autonomously). The two top parts both use the tritone as a melodic element—this interval is notoriously difficult to sing, and it can be heard in ‘Maria’ from West Side Story and in the theme song from The Simpsons. The middle part leaps down a minor seventh from B to C#, and then back up a tritone to G. This movement incorporates two difficult intervals, and introduces an entirely new note, C#. There is a tug between C and C#, and at some points both pitches sound simultaneously—just one example of the dissonant intervals that form between the parts. However, mixed in with all of these dissonances and unstable intervals are some very consonant chords. The first chord is just a major triad, and there are a number of perfect intervals between the parts, and stepwise movement within the two lower parts. This makes an interesting contrast between unexpected dissonances and almost banal contrapuntal writing.
Ultimately, the Lavender Town track is a great example of the uncanny in music. It is just unfamiliar enough to be startling. The effect is different than if it were something totally unfamiliar, like if Masuda used only dissonant intervals or a truly atonal melody. Then it would just be strange (by the standards established in the game), and maybe a little eerie, but it wouldn’t have the haunting effect that we all know it for.