Sound in Film: Comforting or Triggering? Casey O'Hara

Plato argued that music "is the movement of sound to reach the soul for the education of its virtue" (BrainyQuote). Whether it is the sound found in everyday life or within film, it can produce or trigger emotions. Technology has allowed sound in film to come into our lives and touch our emotions in a way that feels personal and unique. "...sound comes at us from all sides, making viewers question whether they're merely watching a film or are right in the middle of it" (Foster, 2014). Even silent films were once accompanied by live music at the viewing to aid in the emotional draw of the film. In addition to this, theater pianists would supply dramatic tones and touches to the film, in order to enhance and intensify scenes (Foster, 2014). With this being said, sound is a critical component to film that allows for a more emotional and personal experience.

  • Example of a silent film, The Wind, viewed and accompanied by live music throughout the film. The viewing is enhanced by the orchestra, as it adds a sense of character and emotion to the clips. For example, at :26 of the video, the music speeds up in accordance with what is going on in the film. This dramatic tone pulls the audience in further and heightens their attention to the scene.

The integration of sound effects can have a huge impact on the tone of a scene. Two different harmonies can allow the audience to experience completely different emotions or intensity. If we look at the original "Good Luck" scene from the film, The Great Escape, and then an edited version where a unique film score was implanted - there comes a more heightened sense of the scene.

  • Original "Good Luck" scene
  • Edited "Good Luck" scene with added film score, by Tim Zinna

It is clear to see in the edited scene, the sounds are more intense. This draws in the audience and allows them to feel more of what the characters are feeling.

The essence of cinema is editing. It's the combination of what can be extraordinary images of people during emotional moments, or images in a general sense, put together in a kind of alchemy."

-Francis Ford Coppola

Music Theory and Psychology

In order to understand the role of sound in film, it is important to first examine the psychology and theory of music. Music theory studies how certain tones are "...encoded in perception, interpreted, remembered and performed" (Krumhansl, 2013). In the field of psychology, the focus is on "...scale, harmony, key, meter, and rhythm for understanding the experience..." (Krumhansl, 2013). Although the theory and psychology have different perspectives, their research collectively portrays what music draws in specific emotions. This knowledge is important when it comes to film; whose purpose is to allow the audience to fully immerse into the plot and feel something in the process.

In Michael Tilson Thomas' TED Talk (below), he discusses how music and emotion have evolved over time. A profound quote from Thomas, regarding how music is more than simple sound is,

"For him is wasn't so much of the way the music goes, as about what it witnesses and where it can take you."

In the Realm of Music, 1957
"The way we react to these phenominom is complex and emotional, and not totally understood."

-Michael Tilson Thomas, "Music and emotion through time"

The Power of Emotional Energy

Japanese scientist, Masaru Emoto believed that emotional energy could change the make-up of water molecules. Being a firm believer of spirituality, his experiment began with the intent of proving the power of emotional energy, such as sound. Although he studied music and speech, I will focus on the effects of music in regards to the molecule's make-up. An example of one of his experiments, Emoto played both classical and heavy metal music for the same period of time and found different structures afterwards. Water molecules, after being exposed to classical music, resembled snowflakes and had defined structures. However, after being exposed to heavy metal music, there was no symmetry noticeable in the molecules. Although this research has been criticized, it is able to show how strong of a correlation there is between sound and emotion. Certain tones, such as high and light tones, often reflect a comforting and appreciative response. However, low and dark tones can project negative emotions.

Emoto's 'Water Molecule' study

When it comes to film, it is important for the sound effects to match the emotion in the scene. For example, if a horror film has lighthearted music in the background, an audience might be less inclined to feel the intensity of the moment. In contrast, if a happy scene is playing dark or exaggerated tones, it might draw in less of an appreciative and whimsical feeling from the viewers.

Counseling Perspective

As a Counseling and Human Services major, different therapeutic techniques have been discussed throughout years of research; in regards to the human mind. Within the mental health field, a client's 'uniqueness' is consistently engrained in a counselor's mind. No two individuals are alike, therefore, each must be treated in a personalized way. With this being said, no two individuals have the same experiences, so reactions to different scenarios can be different. What is comforting for one person might be horrifyingly triggering for another, based on personal, life experience.

Hearing a song that someone loves can literally pleasure our brain by releasing dopamine. However, this can also happen in the opposite direction. For example, with some mental illness comes a hypersensitivity to sound. Hearing specific sounds can trigger emotional distress in those with anxiety disorder (CalmClinic). With this being known, although unintentional, certain sounds, noise, or songs within films can also trigger positive or negative emotions - due to experience.

Evidence in Film

Without mentioning any films, yet, it is known that directors insert specific sounds and music into scene to add dramatic and emotional effect. For example, in the famous film, Jaws, adding two sounds created a masterpiece. This 'da dun' combination touched the audience in a way that created anxiety that something bad was approaching and it has stuck throughout history. So, how do we determine what will trigger these emotions?

In the article, "Feeling All the Feels: How to Choose the Right Music for Your Film", the author discusses the importance and understanding what message is being conveyed in a scene and determining a beat/song that correlates. A horror film might add intense, upbeat music or sounds, such as screeches, that speed up the sympathetic nervous system and scare the human mind. A wedding scene might have light, acoustic guitars that convey a lighthearted and happy emotion to the scene.

Within film, the trigger to music, in relation to mental illness and personal experience, is seen in Silver Linings Playbook. Main character, Pat Solitano, is diagnosed with Bipolar 1 Disorder. Because he is triggered by the memory of his ex-wife, his therapist often plays their wedding song while he is in the waiting room to see if it still impacts him. As seen in the clip below, Pat loses control when hearing the song, even though he had no impaired functioning previously in the scene.

As you can see, this song only triggers Pat, just as a sound or song in a film might. It is completely objective, based on personal experience, whether good or bad. In this case, it happens to bring back periods of crisis and trauma to Pat's memory, so he does not react well to hearing it. However, if someone has a positive memory to a song playing in a sad scene, it might bring in happier emotions, rather than the melancholy ones the directors might have intended. For example, back to the Jaw's theme song, if a member of the audience had a funny experience to it, he/she might be more inclined to relive that memory; rather than fully feel the emotion of the intense scene.

Laughing...when the director wants to you to be...

Although sad or scared emotions are usually referred to in a negative sense, they do not mean a film is bad. Even though the emotions may be heavy, they are intended to be felt for entertainment purposes. However, in some cases, particularly related to mental illness, these emotions can overwhelming. The famous film, American Sniper, is a story that many civilians enjoyed seeing. However, in an interview with Douglas W. Jackson, a veteran, he describes how he, and many other veterans, could not handle watching the film because of its triggers (Jackson, 2015). "My jaw began to tighten, my eyes fixed on the screen and I dreaded the wave of emotions I knew would come next" (Jackson, 2015). Physical responses to, what is supposed to be entertainment, shows the serious reaction that can come from a Hollywood, money-making film.


Created with images by |Chris| - "Sound Board" • FootMassagez - "Smile Laugh" • PublicDomainPictures - "amazed expression eyes face female girl isolated"

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