ByAllanah Faherty, writer at
Senior staff writer | Twitter: @allanahfaherty | Email: [email protected]
Allanah Faherty

In the first days of cinema, music would accompany a silent film to mask the noise that projectors made during screening. It was done as a practical solution, but it soon became obvious that music could do more than just cover up background noise- it could manipulate the emotions of an audience.

Over time directors have managed to get this emotional manipulation down to a fine art. So, how does sound manage to do all this? Let's take your average trip to the cinema to find out.


Vulnerability: Entering the movie theater

  Paranormal activity used sound to scare us
Paranormal activity used sound to scare us

Composer Neil Brand believes that the simple process of going to a cinema to watch a movie adds to our vulnerability.

The darkness, the strangers, the anticipation, the warm comfortable embrace of the cinema seat. We're ready to experience some big emotions, and the minute the music booms out, we are on board for the ride.

So, basically once we entered the cinema we've unconsciously opened ourselves up and without even hearing or seeing anything we're fully ready to be taken along on a journey.


Anticipation: The opening credits

Once the music starts off we may experience a release of dopamine, a chemical which enhances our mood. Research says that we produce up to 9% more dopamine when listening to music we enjoy. A dramatic movie intro, for example the opening credits to Star Wars, one of the most iconic movies of all time, will surely make us feel happy, excited and expectant.


Fear: The climax

  Psycho used music to get a strong audience reaction
Psycho used music to get a strong audience reaction

Horror or thriller scenes are the easiest examples of how music can evoke strong emotions.

Horror films often use chaotic, screeching sounds which we associate with something in distress- such as a baby crying or the squeal of an animal in pain. It is a biological response and we can't escape it. These sounds unsettle and unnerve us and when joined by scary images, such as a horror film, it sets us into full blown panic mode.

This trailer from Jaws is a perfect example

In the first 40 seconds the music builds faster and faster- like our heart rate. The music gets completely panicked and chaotic with sharp, jarring sounds when the shark grabs the swimmer.

Basically the director has teamed an already scary scene with music which scares us because of our biological response.


Subliminal Fear: New techniques

Over the last two decades filmmakers are using another type of sound to make us quake in fear, something we don't even know we're hearing.

Infrasound has a frequency below what the human ear can hear, but the bass waves and vibrations still affect us. Infrasound has been shown to induce anxiety, extreme sorrow, heart palpitations and shivering.

It was probably most famously used in Paranormal Activity, which lacked a huge amount of on-screen action but still left theater goers terrified.


So there you have it, film makers are using your own biology against you to maximize the scariness of films. It's pretty cool when you think about it- we're all essentially programmed to give the same response to these noises, but also kinda creepy.....Mind control anyone?


(Source: BBC, BBC Arts & Culture, Time, Truth Seekers, DailyMail)


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