The Effects of Background Music on People

I am a huge fan Shankar Vedantam and his work as NPR’s Social Sciences Correspondent. A couple weeks ago, he discussed the effect that background music has on people – and as a film/tv/video game composer myself, I was instantly intrigued. Here is a link to the podcast so you can listen for yourself! NPR | Researchers Test The Effects Of Background Music On People

The interview discusses how a group of people will view sharks on TV differently depending on the type of music occurring in the background. When the music was light and flowing, the sharks were seen as majestic. Of course, when the music turned tense and frightful, the sharks were instantly seen as mindless killing machines. I’m sure this seems like common sense. However, I don’t think many people realize that our job as composers is to speak directly to the audience’s emotions, as much as possible!

Let’s take a quick example from a rare documentary about John Williams composing for the original Star Wars trilogy (while heavily discussing Empire Strikes Back). In the clip below, we are shown the scene of Han Solo being frozen in carbonite – first without music, and then with. Notice the difference?

As you probably noticed, without the music, the scene is a bit… “eh.” (With no insult to Lucas and team!) Sure there are some slight emotional points, and it seems like something pretty tragic and dramatic is happening.

But when we hear the music’s elegant fluctuations from fear to uncertainty to hope and love then to pure evil, all within a two minute window… how could our emotions not run just as wild?

The thing is, not many people realize when watching films or television shows, or even advertisements, how much the music is effecting them. The music doesn’t even have to be this grand orchestration we get consistently from John Williams either.

The power of one note held out and twisted was Hans Zimmer’s trick for the Joker throughout The Dark Knight. The entire Joker thematic material is two notes. C and D playing back and forth with each other.

 

The simple yet melancholic piano lightly played over a bed of soft sounds and textures brought a sense of wonder and awe to us, thanks to Thomas Newman during American Beauty.

 

The lovely sounds of pitched percussion contrasted with out of tune synths and electronics to convey that not is all it seems between our two leads in Gone Girl, with the help of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross.

And of course I can’t leave out Michael Giacchino’s genius work in UP, where we see an entire marriage play out in four minutes and are left a sobbing mess by the end. Not a single word of a dialogue. The entire story is told through music and images. And it’s absolute perfection.

 

Sometimes images are simply not enough. And I guarantee if music was absent from these scenes, whether you knew why or not, you would know and feel that something was missing.