Royal Society Publishing

Do film soundtracks contain nonlinear analogues to influence emotion?

Daniel T. Blumstein, Richard Davitian, Peter D. Kaye


A variety of vertebrates produce nonlinear vocalizations when they are under duress. By their very nature, vocalizations containing nonlinearities may sound harsh and are somewhat unpredictable; observations that are consistent with them being particularly evocative to those hearing them. We tested the hypothesis that humans capitalize on this seemingly widespread vertebrate response by creating nonlinear analogues in film soundtracks to evoke particular emotions. We used lists of highly regarded films to generate a set of highly ranked action/adventure, dramatic, horror and war films. We then scored the presence of a variety of nonlinear analogues in these film soundtracks. Dramatic films suppressed noise of all types, contained more abrupt frequency transitions and musical sidebands, and fewer noisy screams than expected. Horror films suppressed abrupt frequency transitions and musical sidebands, but had more non-musical sidebands, and noisy screams than expected. Adventure films had more male screams than expected. Together, our results suggest that film-makers manipulate sounds to create nonlinear analogues in order to manipulate our emotional responses.

  • Received April 8, 2010.
  • Accepted May 4, 2010.
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