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Social and behavioural

Film soundtracks shape our impressions of a character’s personality and thoughts

Until very recently what, exactly, soundtracks do to our understanding of a character has not been studied in detail.

17 December 2020

By Emma Young

If you sit down to watch TV or a film these holidays, you might want to pay a little extra attention to how the soundtrack makes you feel. We all know that background music influences the tone of a scene but what, exactly, soundtracks do to our understanding of a character has not been studied in detail.

In a new paper, in Frontiers in Psychology, Alessandro Ansani at Roma Tre University, Italy, and colleagues report work aimed at filling in some of the gaps.

The team recruited 118 online participants who each watched a video clip that was just under two minutes long. It showed a man slowly walking towards tall windows in the columned corridor of an old building. The seaside was visible through the windows, in the distance. As the researchers describe it, he "walks, looks outside, stops, and moves out of the frame."

At the same time, some of the participants heard the ambient sound that was recorded during the filming, while some heard an extract of "The Isle of the Dead" by Sergei Rachmaninov (a "dogged and anxious" orchestral piece), and the rest heard "Like Someone in Love" by Bill Evans (a "soft, melancholic" piano jazz solo).

The participants then filled in questionnaires that asked about their perceptions of the man's emotions, thoughts and personality, and how pleasant they thought the environment was .

Compared with the other groups, those who'd heard the jazz reported feeling more empathy for the man, and perceived him to be more introverted.

The Rachmaninov group felt him to be more conscientious, however. Participants who heard either music soundtrack perceived him to be more agreeable than those who only heard ambient sounds. Those who'd heard the jazz were also more likely to feel that the man was remembering a pleasant event in the past compared with the Rachmaninov listeners, who were more inclined to think that he was planning something. The jazz group also perceived his environment to be cosier.

A second study with a batch of 92 students largely replicated these findings.

These findings highlight "the multifaceted influence of the soundtrack on the interpretation of a scene," the researchers write. We humans have an incessant need to search for knowledge everywhere, they add, and to fill in gaps using inference and imagination.

"To understand the plot of a novel or movie, we need to know the characters' goals and personalities, and if we have no information whatsoever, we try to take advantage of any cue to guess them." Music, it seems, can act as a complex cue, allowing us to build up a picture of a person and a scene.

Though the original group watched the film out of the lab, the results may not extend to typical viewers of movies. While the participants did consistently report particular impressions of the man's personality and thoughts when asked to do so, that doesn't necessarily mean that people spontaneously form such impressions unprompted while watching a blockbuster on their sofa.

However, though we would all probably expect movie soundtracks to have an impact on us, this research does help to address a previous criticism that actual research in this field has been sparse.

Further reading

– How Soundtracks Shape What We See: Analyzing the Influence of Music on Visual Scenes Through Self-Assessment, Eye Tracking, and Pupillometry

About the author

Emma Young (@EmmaELYoung) is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest