It’s now taken as a given that the musical score of a movie can have huge influence on our perception of the movie. From the pulsating terror achieved in films like Psycho and Jaws, to the triumphant victories in Star Wars and Pirates of the Caribbean, it’s hard to think about a great film without also being influenced by that film’s score. Music is such an important aspect of film that when a group of students was asked to rate the emotions evoked by music in six film excerpts, only a third of them noticed that all the film clips had no music. This was on a multiple choice test, where the first choice was “No music was played.”
We know, for example, that the right kind of music can make us suspicious of an otherwise innocent-seeming character, or evoke feelings of delight watching a benign scene, or even cause false memories for images that weren’t even present in the movie. But little research has considered how viewers respond to music played in other parts of a film. Surely what we see in one scene affects how we perceive the next scene. How about music?
A team led by Siu-Lan Tan added music to four different clips from movies by Woody Allen, François Ozon, Jean-Jacques Beineix, and Krzysztof Kieslowski. The clips all featured female actors with ambiguous emotional expressions, but the music was carefully chosen from an earlier study establishing that the pieces evoked fear, anger, happiness, or sadness. The beginning and end of each movie scene showed only static shots of buildings, and it was during these sequences that the music was systematically added, so that there were eight different versions of each film scene, with music representing each emotion at the beginning or end of the scene.
The clips were shown to 202 undergraduates, 25 of whom were later disqualified because they had seen one of the movies or were familiar with the music. The remaining students saw each clip only once. There were eight different groups of students, so that some students saw each clip with each emotion at the beginning or the end. After viewing each clip they indicated what emotion the actor was portraying by writing a single word on an index card. Next they were given a set of eight emotions: fear, depression, anger, boredom, excitement, sadness, anxiety, happiness, and distress, and asked to rate the actor’s portrayal of each emotion on a scale of 0 to 6. So how did the music affect viewers’ perception of emotion in the clips? This graph offers a summary:
Here, the results are just for music clips played before the character was seen. The emotion of the music played clearly affected how viewers saw the character’s emotion. When happy, sad, or fearful music was played before the clip, viewers were significantly more likely to say the actor intended to portray an emotion related to happiness, sadness, or fear. The relationship doesn’t hold for angry music, but for the three other emotions studied, it’s quite clear that music playing before the actor even appears on screen directly predicts how viewers perceive emotion in the scene.
The results were similar when music was played after the clip.
Whether the music was played before or after the clip, at least in the case of happiness, sadness, or fear, it affected viewers’ perception of the actor’s intended emotion. The researchers were careful not to mention music at all during the presentation of the clips, asking the viewers only about the emotions intended by the character. But music clearly had a dramatic impact on the viewers’ perceptions of the scene. The scenes had been pre-screened without music by 31 viewers to verify that the emotion portrayed in the scene was neutral (two other potential scenes were eliminated during this pre-screening process as not being sufficiently neutral).
Additional analysis by the researchers suggests that the music played before the scene had a more powerful effect on perceived emotion than music played afterwards, but both clearly have an important effect.
This study also shows how hard it may be to extend this research further. When watching an entire two-hour movie, we see dozens of actors portraying a variety of emotions, all accompanied by music. The interplay between the music played, the emotions portrayed, and the emotions perceived can clearly vary infinitely — and since we now know that the influence of music extends beyond when it is actually portrayed, these connections become ever more difficult to unravel.
Siu-Lan Tan, Matthew P. Spackman, Matthew A. Bezdek (2007). Viewers’ Interpretations of Film Characters’ Emotions: Effects of Presenting Film Music Before or After a Character is Shown Music Perception, 25 (2), 135-152 DOI: 10.1525/mp.2007.25.2.135