Music and memory

Today's reading is "Musical Soundtracks as a Schematic Influence on the Cognitive Processing of Filmed Events," by Marilyn G. Boltz of Haverford College (Music Perception, Summer 2001).

All film is illusion. The illusion of motion is created by a sequence of static frames. The illusion of a three-dimensional world is created by a two-dimensional photograph. What role does music play in maintaining that illusion? A big one, it turns out. Marshall and Cohen (1988) found that by showing cartoons where the only "characters" were a triangle, a circle, and a square, changing the music could change viewer's perceptions about the "characters" (it turns out, triangles are thugs). Other researchers have found that appropriate music can help you remember details about a scene in a film.

What Boltz wanted to know was whether music alone could change the way viewers thought about a scene in a film, and furthermore, whether it could actually affect viewers' memory later on. She showed viewers three ambiguous scenes, from "Cat People," "Vertigo," and the TV show "The Hitchhiker," and played either "positive," "negative," or no music to accompany the scenes.

Boltz found that when viewers watched Malcolm McDowell and Nastassia Kinski talk in a benign scene accompanied by "positive" music, they saw McDowell primarily as "kind/caring," "loving," or "playful." When the "negative" music was played, he became "crazy/deranged," "evil," manipulative," "controlling/possessive," and "mysterious" (and this is without seeing him turn into a black leopard and rip someone's arm off). When asked to predict what would happen next, viewers who had never seen the film and who saw the version with "positive" music ("Blossom Meadow" by George Winston) thought that McDowell and Kinski would have a happy life together and possibly fall in love. Viewers who instead saw a version with "negative" music (from Rubycon by Tangerine Dream—of "Risky Business" fame) thought McDowell would "harm," "kill," or "do supernatural harm" to Kinski. The results were similar for scenes from "Vertigo" and "The Hitchhicker." So music matters, whether we're watching a bad '80s HBO series or a Hitchcock classic.

A separate group of viewers was not asked to give predictions. Instead, they were invited back to Boltz's lab a week later to be given a pop quiz. It turns out, when shown a list of words, some of which were names of objects that appeared in the film clip and some of which weren't, they correctly remembered about two-thirds of the objects. But people who listened to "positive" music remembered about 80 percent of the "positive" objects in the scene, as opposed to only half of the "negative" objects. For people who heard the "negative" music, the results were correspondingly reversed. Furthermore, people hearing "negative" music were more likely to remember negative objects that weren't even present in the scene they were shown, such as an open grave and an ice pick in "Vertigo."

This suggests a new way moviemakers can mess with viewers' heads. By playing "positive" music in the presence of a "negative" object they don't want viewers to remember, they can fool their audience into all sorts of misperceptions. Or they could use consistent music in a seemingly innocuous scene to force viewers to pay more attention. Of course, filmmakers didn't need Boltz to tell them most of this stuff—they've known it for years. But Boltz has finally quantified it for us in a way that shows how significant it really is.

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