Ominous Background Music Is Bad for Sharks

 
 
Experimental research reveals the influential power of music to help or hurt fundraising campaigns. Elizabeth Keenan and Andrew P. Nosal discuss how the scary music associated with sharks gives them a bad rap, which may hinder conservation efforts.
 
 
by Carmen Nobel

Sharks have been stigmatized on screen for decades, from the 1975 movie Jaws, in which a gigantic great white shark terrorizes a resort island off the coast of Massachusetts, to the 2013 movie Sharknado, in which the eponymous spout of shark-infested seawater terrorizes the city of Los Angeles.

Unlike Hollywood films, documentaries tend to portray sharks in their natural habitats, as in Discovery Channel’s “Shark Week,” an annual weeklong programming block of shark videos. But new research indicates that documentaries may also fuel fear, thanks to the ominous background music that is often associated with shark footage.

In a series of experiments, researchers found that music indeed has the power to influence public perceptions of sharks. Participants who viewed footage of swimming sharks set to ominous background music ended up rating sharks more negatively than those who watched the same video set to uplifting music, or who watched the video with no music at all.

The findings are detailed in the study The Effect of Background Music in Shark Documentaries on Viewers’ Perceptions of Sharks. Published today in the journal PLOS ONE, the study also looks at how public attitudes about sharks can affect efforts to save them.

“Negative public opinion and fear of sharks continues to hinder conservation efforts,” says Elizabeth Keenan, an assistant professor in the Marketing unit of Harvard Business School, and a co-author of the study along with Andrew P. Nosal, Philip A. Hastings, and Ayelet Gneezy.

In a series of experiments, researchers found that music has the power to influence public perceptions of sharks. Source: Shutterstock

Sharks are in dire need of conservation efforts. Some 100 million sharks are killed annually, far exceeding the average rebound rate for many shark populations, which results in an ongoing decline, according to the 2013 study Global catches, exploitation rates, and rebuilding options for sharks. The extinction risk is considerably higher for chrondrichthyan fishes – sharks, rays, and chimaeras – than for most other vertebrates, and one-quarter of the world’s chrondrichthyan species are threatened due to overfishing, according to the 2014 study Extinction Risk and Conservation of the World’s Sharks and Rays.

“By highlighting that ominous background music is associated with negative attitudes towards sharks, we hope to start a conversation about ways we can improve public perception of these ecologically important animals,” says Andrew Nosal, a visiting researcher at Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

The Power of the Theme from “Jaws”

Why do filmmakers tend to associate sharks with scary music? Thank the brilliant composer John Williams, who wrote the Academy-award-winning score for Jaws. It’s one of the most recognizable and influential scores in the world. In modern pop culture, great white sharks are inexorably tied to the terrifying two-note pattern of the movie’s main theme: Da nuh. Da nuh. DA NUH. DANADADANADANADANA!

“Just as the leitmotif of the Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz might evoke images of its cackling, green-skinned character, the ominously quickening motif that typifies the Jaws soundtrack may similarly evoke haunting images of surfacing dorsal fins, swimmers’ legs underwater, and the histrionic combination of blood and bubbles,” the researchers write. “Consequently, we propose that the background music in shark documentaries can negatively influence viewers’ perceptions of sharks, attitudes towards them, and likelihood of supporting related conservation efforts.”

To gauge the effect of scary music in shark documentaries, the researchers recruited 2,181 participants to watch a sixty-second clip from the BBC’s “Blue Planet” series, which featured schooling hammerhead and requiem sharks swimming around harmlessly, not eating anything.

Some participants watched the clip with the music that originally accompanied the shark footage in the documentary, a track called “Sharks,” which was deemed ominous by an independent music expert, who described it as “modal with only fragments of melody,” and who noted “a repetitive flute motif that creates an unsettling sound.”

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Other participants watched the same clip, but accompanied by soothing, uplifting background music: the main theme from the “Blue Planet” series. 

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A third set of participants watched the clip with no music at all. 

The researchers found that participants who viewed the video with its original ominous music reported more negative attitudes toward sharks than those who had viewed the same footage set to uplifting music or silence. Moreover, they determined that these negative attitudes were not simply due the music alone, but rather the combination of the video and audio: there was no effect on shark attitudes among those who listened to the different soundtracks without watching the video.

The lesson for conservationists: “Any organization that intends to positively promote sharks or any other creature should carefully consider the soundtracks they choose,” Keenan says. “While it may be tempting to include ominous soundtracks for entertainment value for instance, our research shows there is a potential cost to doing so.”

And while this study focuses on sharks, the findings provide a general lesson about the marketing power of background music, which may well take a front seat toward influencing consumer choices.

“Atmospheric factors such as background music are known to affect consumers’ preferences,” Keenan says. “The key lies in determining whether these factors are influencing consumers in ways that align with firms’ intended outcomes.”

About the Author

Carmen Nobel is the senior editor of Harvard Business School Working Knowledge.

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