Science News

Attitude toward sharks affected by ominous music, study says

Music is an integral part of film, adding emotional depth to the experience of watching images on screen, but oceanographers fear ominous music used in documentaries about sharks could hurt efforts to save them.

Researchers at the University of California San Diego found people watching video of sharks with ominous background music had a more negative opinion of the animals than those watching video with an uplifting soundtrack or none at all, according to a study published in the journal PLOS ONE.

In addition to news reports of shark attacks, a lot of information people gain on sharks comes from documentaries, which have gained popularity in recent years as the Discovery Channel’s “Shark Week” has become one of the biggest television events of the year.

Researchers say the fear built by some video clips is similar to that generated in movies using carefully chosen soundtracks.

In many cases, fear is built in horror or thriller films using a leitmotif — a short, recurring musical phrase paired with a character. Well known examples of the leitmotif include music played during The Wizard of Oz when the Wicked Witch of the West appears on screen, the “Imperial March” played when Darth Vader appears during Star Wars or the quickening music paired with the great white shark in Jaws.

For the study, researchers recruited 2,181 people online to watch 60-second video of sharks swimming soundtracked by either ominous music, happy music or nothing at all.

Overall, people who saw video of sharks swimming to ominous music had more negative and less positive regard for the animals than those watching the same clips set to uplifiting music or silence.

While the researchers acknowledge they are not sure whether perceptions affected by music would change interest in conservation efforts or other behavior, the study suggests this is possible.

“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,” Andrew Nosal, a researcher at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego, said in a press release.