Movie soundtracks are designed to freak us out on an evolutionary level

Illustration for article titled Movie soundtracks are designed to freak us out on an evolutionary level

According to evolutionary biologists, movie music contains "unexpected" sounds that trigger primal reactions from audiences. In other words, our brains are hardwired to respond with fear to the Jaws soundtrack.


In a study led by evolutionary ecologist Daniel Blumstein of UCLA and published in the journal Biology Letters, researchers analyzed popular horror, drama, war, and adventure films for "non-linear analogues." What are non-linear analogues? Says Blumstein:

We all know that things like tempo and volume are used by musicians to create tension and elicit particular emotions. We know that certain chords also do that [...] We looked for things that would have been non-linear had they been naturally produced in film soundtracks. We call these non-linear analogues [...] What is novel about this study is that we specifically looked for these non-linear analogues and found that indeed they're present in evocative scenes and that different sorts of emotions are associated with different types of non-linearities.

What did Blumenstein and his researchers discover? Out of 100+ of the most popular films, horror and drama flicks used non-linear sounds the most to reinforce emotional scenes. Blumstein further elaborates that humans are hardwired to react to these jarring, non-linear noises:

Imagine a horn. You blow it gently and a nice sound comes out. You blow it a little louder and a nice but louder sound comes out. At some point, when you blow it too hard, the sound gets unpredictable, distorted and noisy [...] You've hit the non-linear zone of that horn. The same thing happens in your vocal tract. Indeed you can imagine that if you're really scared, you'll really yell[...]

These manipulated soundtracks contrast with the organic sounds of nature. For example, Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds relied on synthesized, artificial bird calls. No wonder Jaws made everyone afraid of sharks, what with John Williams' jarring score. Movie audiences have known for years that sharp violin stabs have the power to chill us to the core, but it's good to see researchers corroborate it.

[Via The Independent]




It amazes me what kinds of studies get funded these days. How can I get in on this?