The Manipulation of Fear Behind Sound & Music

Posted on 14th May, 2018

As a huge horror fan, I have always been fascinated by the science and psychology behind fear, and as humans why do most of us find horror films and scary games enticing. After all, fear itself is an unpleasant feeling. Seeing that I work in the industries of sound and music, my curiosity led me to investigate what it is that makes a sound or a piece of music scary? how does our brain process this and recognise it as scary? According to DanielBlumstein, the answer lies in our animal instincts. Blumstein states:

“Imagine a horn. You blow it gently and a nice sound comes out. You blow it a little louder and a nice but louder sound comes out. At some point, when you blow it too hard, the sound gets unpredictable, distorted and noise. You’ve hit the non-linear zone of that horn. The same thing happens in your vocal. Indeed, you can tract imagine that if you’re really scared, you’ll really yell, and the yell or scream will contain [non-linear] noise”

Nonlinear is a term used to describe sound where the volume is increased above amplitude. When the volume alters beyond a certain point, the sound becomes “raspy” and jumps around, indicating that it is now beyond the normal linear range of the instrument or vocal chords. When a human, animal, or creature is compelled to yell out in a way, it drives the vocal chords to distortion. Steve Kutay (sound designer at radios 360) explains:

“The psychology impact of ambient sounds can add much to the onscreen imagery, though not physically present in the scenery. For instant a distant, sustained cry of an infant suggests vulnerability or insecurity.”

Psycho (1960) - Alfred Hitchcock
Psycho (1960) – Alfred Hitchcock

It is an instinctive feature in our brains that tells us ‘something bad is happening’ which makes it very hard to ignore this intuition. We can sense the danger and this can compel us wanting to investigate the situation. As humans continue to evolve, we are not so reliant on our primal instincts to survive in the modern society like our wild animal counterparts. Instead, our instincts remain deep within ourselves in dormant and are now manipulated by movie makers, game developers, composers and sound designers to entice our instincts for entertainment purposes.

Blumstein goes on to explain:

“Soundtracks contain more than simply music, and sound engineers can create sounds that would be impossible for an individual to produce. Our results suggest that film makers manipulate sounds to create nonlinear analogues in order to manipulate emotional responses,”

Stranger Things (2016) - The Duffer Brothers
Stranger Things (2016) – The Duffer Brothers

Does this explain why sometimes we instinctively cover our ears instead of our eyes when witnessing something unnerving? Try it out for yourselves, next time you watch a scary film or play a scary video game and start to feel a bit unsettled. Ask yourself if you are hearing non-linear sounds. Then watch the same thing again, this time with the sound off. I bet it is a totally different experience.

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