Musical Manipulation: The Power of Background Music in Wildlife Documentaries

This week's post was written by my fellow science communicator Madeleine Brennan! She's studying how music can affect how people feel about animals in documentaries for her Master's thesis here at the University of Otago. Read on for a fascinating look at just how easily we can be swayed by sound.


  Most of us enjoy a good nature documentary. Image by Roger Bamber.

Most of us enjoy a good nature documentary. Image by Roger Bamber.

I don’t go out into nature as much as I used to. With a thesis due date looming, I seem to be spending most of my days trapped in a cramped office, hunched over a computer. When the work day finally comes to an end, I am often left debating how to spend the last few hours of the day that are truly mine. I am lucky enough to live in a city that has nature only a short drive away, so the optimistic, adventurous, more naive side of my brain is always arguing for me to get out there and live life to the fullest! However, the tired, overworked, more resigned side of my brain always has to have its say, pointing out how comfortable the couch is, how warm the lounge is with its crackling fireplace and blankets. Guess which side normally wins?

As I collapse into the couch, I begin flicking through the line-up of cooking shows, reality TV dramas, and home renovation projects. But being a bit of a science nerd I am always suckered into sticking on a good old nature doco. If you don’t have the energy to go outside, why not watch something that makes you feel like you are?!

Cape fur seals lounge along the South African coast. Image by Bernard DUPONT.

With a click of a button I have been transported from the comfort of my living room, to a dangerous, unfamiliar environment. Grey waves crash against the jagged rocks of the South African coastline, as the dawn sun fails to break through thick, moody clouds. Opportunistic birds circle above the water as hundreds of dark shapes battle through the ocean’s swell. A closer look shows them to be a group of cape fur seals, journeying through the breakers on their daily search for food. As they swim through the water, a drum beats in the background, giving the impression of soldiers heading to war. An orchestra begins to play, the swells of violins and cellos adding a sense of grandeur and heroism to the seals daily routine. Then the tone changes. They are fast approaching a channel, and with the open water looming ahead a sense of unease is building in the background. The music shifts to a minor key, the pace quickens, and the once melodic violins begin to screech. Nothing else has changed the waves keep crashing and the seals keep swimming, but two familiar notes begin to play, alerting you that something sinister is waiting for them. A lone seal strays too far from the group, and with a crash of symbols, the threat reveals itself. Propelling itself from the dark waters, a great white shark clamps its powerful jaws around the defenceless seal. More sharks emerge underneath the seals to take part in the feeding frenzy, the music mimicking the horrors on screen. But just as quickly as the carnage began, the scene calms, the music dying down with it as those lucky enough to survive make their way out of the channel. The sharks remain, circling unseen beneath the water, waiting for the seals to journey back.

If this scene sounds familiar, you may have been one of the 6.8 million viewers who tuned in to the Shallow Seas episode of the 2006 BBC hit Planet Earth. The series proved to be so popular that by the end of the year it had been aired in countless homes across 130 countries. During the shows production while the camera operators were busy filming amongst the action, George Fenton was in the studio creating something as equally important to the scene: the background music.

In recent years, music has become an important tool in engaging viewers and creating narrative in wildlife documentaries, adding drama and emotion to otherwise normal, mundane scenes. With well thought out composition the composer can transform a seal into a heroic protagonist, and a shark into the story’s villain. For Planet Earth, the combination of both breath-taking imagery and emotive music made the show an incredible success. While this was great news for the BBC executives, it was yet another blow to shark conservation.

  Perhaps the most iconic part of  Jaws  was the infamous ominous music that accompanied shark attacks.

Perhaps the most iconic part of Jaws was the infamous ominous music that accompanied shark attacks.

Since the 1975 blockbuster hit Jaws smashed box-office records and scared a generation of viewers from the water, sharks have had a pretty bad reputation in the mass media. A simple duuuun dun now has the ability to send a chill up your spine, conjuring images of swimmers legs dangling under the surface, dorsal fins emerging from beneath, and the water turning a frothing red. While they are portrayed as calculating, man-hungry monsters lurking just beyond the shallows, waiting to pull you under, the reality of sharks is quite different. With overfishing, finning, and habitat degradation reaching new heights, the future of sharks is dire. Their populations have plummeted worldwide, with over a quarter of shark species now classified as threatened with extinction under IUCN criteria. Right now they need our help more than ever, but they can’t quite escape the negative reputation and ominous background music that follows them around like… well… like a hungry great white shark in Jaws.

It is because of this negative portrayal of sharks in the media that Andrew Nosal and his colleagues decided to research public perceptions of sharks - more specifically how the background music could influence viewers’ opinions. Participants in the study were shown a 60-second video of sharks swimming aimlessly, set to either ominous music, uplifting music, or silence. Unsurprisingly, those that viewed the video set to ominous music reported more negative feelings towards sharks, viewing the animals as more scary, vicious, and dangerous. However, those that watched the videos with uplifting music reported the opposite, viewing the sharks in a more positive light, seeing them as more peaceful, graceful, and beautiful. Amazingly, just by changing the background music to something more inspiring, the participants overlooked the years of negative shark publicity and felt more positively towards sharks and their conservation. It turns out that the background music has more power in wildlife documentaries than originally thought. It has the power to completely change how we feel about the animal on screen.

Unfortunately, sharks are not the only animal to fall victim to the vilifying effects of background music. A quick search through some of my favourite documentary series resulted in many other examples; komodo dragons stalking buffalo to sinister music, a shift to minor key indicating the approach of a predatory snake, killer whales pushing an unfortunate seal off ice to a heart-breaking melody. Even some animals that we deem more charismatic are not safe, with animals like polar bears, lions and wolves also portrayed as the villains in certain scenes. If Nosal’s findings apply to animals other than sharks, are our perceptions of these animals also being negatively affected?

  We've become accustomed to seeing wildlife with a play/pause button on hand. Image from a preview of a film by  TimFromZim .

We've become accustomed to seeing wildlife with a play/pause button on hand. Image from a preview of a film by TimFromZim.

As our lives become more urbanised and we move into cities in increasing numbers, we find ourselves spending less time around nature, experiencing it mainly through screens. Our demand for dramatic, ground-breaking wildlife documentaries is increasing, but around us the natural world is disappearing. Species are vanishing at an alarming rate as habitat destruction, poaching, and pollution continues to rise. Groups across the world are working hard to help protect our remaining biodiversity, but their conservation efforts cannot succeed without public support. This leaves me wondering that if some of the worlds most threatened species are being portrayed in a negative light through the media, is this hindering their chances of successful conservation? Could what we currently see as harmless entertainment actually be effecting who we decide to protect, subtly telling us what species we should care about, and those which we shouldn’t?

How does the music make you feel about this sloth’s struggles?

Since the media is set on telling the stories of those that cannot speak for themselves, and we as consumers are eager to hear and be entertained by them, it is now more critical than ever that we become aware of how our perceptions of the world around us can be so easily manipulated. Manipulated even by something as humble as background music.


To see more of Madeleine's work, check out her Vimeo or her Instagram!