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Ominous Music Gives Sharks A Bad Rap, Hindering Conservation Efforts

The Jaws theme has its consequences.

Ominous Music Gives Sharks A Bad Rap, Hindering Conservation Efforts

[Photo: Sergey Uryadnikov via Shutterstock]

Ominous music might be hindering shark conservation efforts. Because the background music in shark documentaries, and even news spots, is often sinister and portentous, the public is less sympathetic to the big fish, which has an impact on willingness to support shark conservation.

Researchers at UC San Diego have published a paper on this effect. "This is the first study to demonstrate empirically that the connotative attributes of background music accompanying shark footage affect viewers’ attitudes toward sharks," says the paper.

The study, carried out online, showed shark footage to over 2,000 participants. Some were shown the footage with ominous music, others were shown the footage with silence, and the rest got "uplifting" music along with the clips. They were then asked questions to determine "their perceptions of sharks and willingness to conserve sharks."

[Photo: Divepic/iStock]

And surprise, surprise, those viewing the footage with the creepy, sinister soundtrack rated sharks as scarier, and were less likely to support shark conservation efforts.

The music accompanying shark footage is nontrivial. In fact, many people trace their fear of sharks to the 1975 blockbuster Jaws, whose redolent soundtrack has become deeply rooted in popular culture.

People, it seems, don’t like sharks. Or rather, we are more scared of them than we should be. The study quotes a test where 766 Australians estimated the number of shark bites that occur in their country annually. They estimated 7 to 9 fatal bites, and 20 to 30 non-fatal bites. The actual numbers, averaged from 1990-2010, were 1.1 fatal, and 9.3 non-fatal. And remember, in Australia every animal that moves is more or less deadly, so the Aussies are used to that sort of thing.

Inexplicably, John Williams’s Jaws theme wasn’t used in the study. Instead, the researchers chose a track called Sharks, from Blue Planet: Music from the BBC TV Series. This track was assessed by an independent music expert who described it thusly:

Modal with only fragments of melody’ accompanied by ‘sporadic and sparse atmospheric percussion’ and ‘a repetitive flute motif that creates an unsettling sound,’ thus confirming the ominous nature of the music.

In fact, the whole published paper is full of gems like this. Here are the authors on their pre-experiment hypothesis:

We predicted that when footage of swimming sharks is set to ominous music, viewers would perceive sharks as scarier, more dangerous, and more vicious than when the same footage is set to uplifting music.

One surprise was that when participants were played the ominous music without an accompanying video clip, they rated sharks "more negatively" than those who also watched the clip, showing the power of music as a psychological agent.

The study concludes that sharks do indeed get a bad rap from their relentlessly forbidding soundtracks. The authors also take time to tick off documentary makers, who should know better. "For many, documentaries are regarded as objective and authoritative sources of information," says the paper. "Thus, documentary filmmakers and viewers should be aware of the effects of the soundtrack on the interpretation of the educational content, [and] while an ominous soundtrack may enhance their entertainment aspect, it may also undermine their educational value by biasing viewers’ perceptions of sharks."

What's missing from the study is a suggestion as to what music might be used instead of the usual relentless, bass-heavy dirges that accompany shark footage. In the absence of this recommendation, and as a way to support shark conservation, may I offer the Benny Hill theme, Yakety Sax, along with speeding up the video, as a way to make sharks seem friendlier. Perhaps they could also wear funny little hats.

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