How movies use music to manipulate your memory

About one in five American adults manages to cram in a movie every day. It’s a great way to escape from everyday life and relax with loved ones. But what can you actually remember about last night’s movie?

You might be able to remember the title, the rough outline of the story, or the Hollywood star who starred in it. But dig a little deeper. How easily does a specific series of movies come to mind right now? And more importantly, can you hear or recognize the film’s soundtrack?

Filmmakers have long used music to make movies, scenes, and characters more memorable. Now, psychological research has begun to reveal the science behind this process.

Music is so deeply ingrained in our cinematic experience that we sometimes have a false memory of it. One study found that after watching a short film sequence, up to two-thirds of participants believed that the sequence was accompanied by music – even when it wasn’t. Scientists call this “expectation bias.”

A successful musical score often includes earworms—songs that stick in our minds. Usually, these are songs that have achieved great success and soon topped the music charts.

When paired with a series of films, fresh versions of old hits help keep audiences entertained. Their singing and foot tapping reflects the huge exposure they have had for decades. Because of this, they are easily used as an effective marketing hook, especially in movie trailers – where there is little time to make an impact on viewers.

Music also helps us interpret the characters. Research shows that listening to a 15-second segment of scary music can act as an important cue to look for signs of fear in the facial expressions of characters on screen.

But how do you create deeper emotional connections? Filmmakers rely on a range of techniques to try to create lasting and distinctive film scenes. They are often based on the emotional properties of the combination between sound and images. But is there hard evidence that music can actually affect visual memories in this way?

Research into music and memory has revealed that the two are strongly linked. People are more accurate in recalling the actions, characters, and outcome of a positive or negative movie scene if it is accompanied by music of similar positive or negative emotional quality, respectively.

This correspondence between the emotional content of the film and the music is called the mood congruency effect. It improves our memory of what has previously been viewed by ‘breaking up’ memory fragments into a quick, easy and more manageable whole in our minds.

Irony and incongruity

Irony is about the ability to say one thing while meaning the opposite. Often considered a linguistic device, it is also evident in the juxtaposition of sound and image. In the technique of ironic contrast, scenes that depict negative events or emotions such as sadness, anger, and fear are paired with emotionally positive music.

The result of this pairing is that the inappropriate background disrupts the emotional tone of the film scene, often creating a sarcastic or melancholic effect that is memorable.

The films Bowling for Columbine and A Clockwork Orange provide examples of violent episodes that are accompanied by inappropriate music.

Mood mismatch effects represent another twist in viewer expectations. We rely on our own personal experiences and associations with musical conventions to help shape our understanding of what happens next.

Watching a short clip of a wedding party set to slow, sad music, for example, alerts us to a discrepancy between the visual content and our previous (direct or indirect) experiences of wedding parties. The movie script in our minds may ask, “Where’s the upbeat music for the party guests to dance to?” The search for the answer makes us even more aware of the mood mismatch effect conveyed by the music.

This allows us to develop a more distinctive image in our memory. We actually tested this in the lab. We asked 60 participants to watch a romantic comedy trailer with sad, happy or no music. When we tested their memory of the trailer later, we found that people who heard the sad music had a better visual memory of the movie scene than those who watched it with happy music or no music at all.

Mood mismatch effects are not limited to audio-visual pairings. They can also be detected with other senses, such as smell, and serve to alert us quickly and efficiently to violations of expectations in our immediate environment. It’s almost like a ‘what’s next’ setting in our brain that makes us pay more attention – and therefore remember the event better.

These effects appear to be relatively short-lived, and whether they can have any longer-term impact beyond a few minutes of a movie trailer or movie scene has yet to be fully determined. After all, they are informed by our previous experiences and stored in our long-term memory, ready and willing for the next plot twist.

So what happens if our prior experiences of these music-induced emotions are fragmented or missing altogether, as may be the case for individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing?

Could labeling a piece of music as “spooky” produce similar ironic contrast effects on memory as actual, sinister-sounding music, for example? And if the unexpected becomes the expected, is the irony lost? The answers to these questions might just open a new portal into our movie-watching universe.

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