Why Are We So Afraid of Sharks? It Could Be the Background Music

An underwater photo of sharks
Blacktip reef sharks congregate in the lagoon of Millennium Atoll in the Southern Line Islands. (Enric Sala / National Geographic)

Remember the first time you watched Jaws? Can you hear John Williams’ spine tingling movie score playing right now? Dahh-na. Dahh-na. Dah-na dah-na dah-na—it’s enough to make a swimmer beeline for the shore. 

Now imagine Jaws without music. No hair-raising bass and cello combination to signal the dread of an oncoming great white, nor the crescendo of trombones and tubas to cue the unknowing swimmer’s untimely end. Without music, the monster shark looks more like a big fish coolly cruising the open ocean. 

It’s no surprise that music helps dictate how an audience feels while watching a film. But in some cases, musical choices can dictate much more. 

A recent study from Scripps Institution of Oceanography found that the background music played over documentary shark footage could affect a viewer’s perception of sharks. In short, researchers make the case that ominous music might actually hinder shark conservation efforts by casting the creatures in an overly fearsome light. 

Scripps scientist Andrew Nosal, along with colleagues at Harvard University, systematically tested this relationship by convening a 2,000-person study entirely online. Participants were asked a series of questions about their reactions after watching one of three video clips that depicted 60-seconds of shark footage over ominous music, uplifting music, or total silence. 

Predictably, participants who watched shark footage over ominous music were more likely to regard sharks negatively than those who watched the same video clip set to uplifting music or to no music at all. 

“Evolutionarily, we’re hardwired to pay attention to things that can harm us, which is one reason why I think people actually like to be scared of sharks,” explains shark biologist Chris Lowe. “It’s something that Steven Spielberg figured out 40 years ago. You don’t even have to see the shark to be afraid – the storytelling and music were enough to allow our imaginations to run wild,” referring to the 1975 classic, Jaws.

Professor and researcher at California State University, Long Beach, Lowe gives context to the media’s connection with shark images and the musical choices they’re coupled with. “Production companies have learned to use the ‘Jaws factor’ to grab your attention, even if the intention is to talk about natural history or conservation.” 

Documentaries are often regarded as trusted, authoritative sources of information, which is why Nosal points out “documentary filmmakers and viewers should be aware of the effects of the soundtrack on the interpretation of the educational content.”

Although Nosal’s study might not surprise the musicians that write scores for scary movies, his is the first to measure the subtle, yet powerful relationship between music, a viewer’s perception of sharks, and their willingness to support efforts to conserve sharks. 

August 2016