Find out how filmmakers subliminally affect your emotions through the use of sound frequencies!


 It’s no secret that films have the power to sway their audiences opinions and emotions, but some manage to do this better than others, without even really trying (Or at least so it seems). So what is it that separates the effective ones from the others? The answer isn’t acting or direction, or even storyline! No, the real secret to a really impactful scene is the perfect musical score.


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The art of musical scoring began early on in the age of silent films and expressionism. The popularity of the silent film was spreading on a global level and films of this kind were projected on a screen before a large audience. Understandably, they couldn’t keep their audiences sitting in complete silence for an extended period of time, but they also could not yet add music to the film itself. So, live music was played for the duration of the films, ranging from a solitary piano to an entire string quartet.


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What was really interesting about this, however, was the fact that there was no actual written score! The musicians made it up as they went along! When a character on screen fell down a flight of stairs or was throwing punches in a fistfight, the live musicians would try to mirror similar sounds with their instruments. After enduring several performances in a day, the musicians would memorize the movie and their entrances and exits.

Over time, filmmaking developed further and there was no more use for these live composers. The movie King Kong was released in 1993, with Max Steiner’s original score. This was one of the first movies to be scored throughout the whole plot, and Steiner wrote the score using the Classical Scoring Technique. This meant that the music itself would mirror the emotion of the scene, for example, if the scene was intense, and called for a dramatic air, the musical score would also be intense. When there’s a happy scene, the music used is happy.


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Musical scores have been used extensively to complement the theme of the occurring scene. Composer Neil Brand, presenter of BBC Four’s The Music That Made Movies once quoted “Human beings are very good at interpreting sound. Right back to when our prehistoric selves will have heard a twig snap in a forest and thought ‘that’s it, I’m dead’. We have a very deep understanding of what music is doing, and it’s very physical. We can feel it going into our ears via sound waves and it can produce all sorts of physical responses, including in the right circumstances an actual thud to the stomach.”

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This physical reaction is precisely what filmmakers try to achieve using a memorable score. Take the famed shower scene from the 1960 Hitchcock movie, Psycho. Initially, Hitchcock had instructed composer Bernard Herrmann to leave the iconic shower scene unscored. Luckily for the rest of us, Herrmann ignored this request and went on to write the jarring, jabbing notes we now attribute to the prolific scene. Scientifically speaking, the jabbing notes in Psycho’s shower scene trigger the same emotional response as the sound of screaming animals. Unsurprisingly, Hitchcock agreed to include Herrmann’s contribution in the final cut of the movie.

For a more romantic sounding score, Canada’s MGill University conducted an experiment in 2011, that studied the neural mechanics of why we often get goosebumps from listening to a particularly good tune. The scans that came out of this study suggested that the regions of the brain that actually lit up in accordance with aural cues were ones linked to euphoric stimuli, such as food, sex, and drugs. Blood flow in the brain responded to areas associated with emotion, reward, and arousal.

The Science writer Philip Ball, the author of The Music Instinct, once said that soundtracks had the ability to evoke the same reaction within us whether the music was good or bad. “Our response to certain kinds of noise is something so profound in us that we can’t switch it off,” he says. “Film composers know that and use it to shortcut the logical part of our brain and get straight to the emotional centres.


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In accordance with this theory, filmmakers sometimes use infrasound to induce fear in audiences. These extreme bass waves or vibrations have a frequency below the range of the human ear, giving them a somewhat supernatural and foreign quality. For example, low-frequency sounds are believed to evoke fear and discomfort, while the basically inaudible infrasound has been demonstrated to induce anxiety, sorrow, shivering and even rapid heart palpitations.


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Examples of this can be seen in films like the 2007 horror movie Paranormal Activity, during which audiences reported high fear levels despite a lack of onscreen action. It is believed this was caused by the use of low-frequency sound waves employed by the filmmakers.

“It doesn’t affect everyone equally,” Ball quotes “but it does seem likely that in cinemas we will see, or at least feel, more of it in the future.”