UC San Diego researchers studying the effects of ominous background music on the public’s perception of shark footage have recently published their findings.
Not surprisingly, when the researchers played music that was “modal with only fragments of melody accompanied by sporadic and sparse atmospheric percussion and a repetitive flute motif [creating] an unsettling sound” over the top of shark footage, the test subjects reacted more negatively to that footage than to footage accompanied by “uplifting background music.”
Though the findings may seem like a no-brainer, this study is the first, according to the researchers, “to demonstrate empirically that the connotative attributes of background music accompanying shark footage affect viewers’ attitudes toward sharks.”
In the article’s abstract the researchers assert that ominous music used in films and documentaries affects the public’s perception of sharks, leading to marginalization of the creatures:
“Despite the ongoing need for shark conservation and management, prevailing negative sentiments marginalize these animals and legitimize permissive exploitation. These negative attitudes arise from an instinctive, yet exaggerated fear, which is validated and reinforced by disproportionate and sensationalistic news coverage of shark ‘attacks’ and by highlighting shark-on-human violence in popular movies and documentaries. In this study, we investigate another subtler, yet powerful factor that contributes to this fear: the ominous background music that often accompanies shark footage in documentaries. Using three experiments, we show that participants rated sharks more negatively and less positively after viewing a 60-second video clip of swimming sharks set to ominous background music, compared to participants who watched the same video clip set to uplifting background music, or silence.
Given that nature documentaries are often regarded as objective and authoritative sources of information, it is critical that documentary filmmakers and viewers are aware of how the soundtrack can affect the interpretation of the educational content.”
The abstract curiously puts the word “attacks” in quotes, as if to indicate that shark attacks aren’t a real thing—perhaps one could make that argument depending on one’s definition of the word “attack,” but these shark “accident” victims might be hard to convince.
The paper specifically names the leitmotif from Jaws as a culturally ingrained bit of music that reinforces negative stereotypes of sharks. There’s no question that the “da dun da dun” soundtrack element is one of the most effective horror motifs of all time, perhaps second only to Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho string stabs.
So, was a study necessary to find that scary music makes things seem scary?
Maybe, maybe not. Perhaps the Jaws theme being played in a major key would go a long way toward repairing the negative cultural connotations?
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H/T: Weird Universe
Previously on Dangerous Minds:
Traci Lords’ new Women in Prison-cum-Sharksploitation flick: ‘Sharkansas Women’s Prison Massacre’