Scary Film Music Research

The musical elements that accompanying frightening scenes in film soundtracks are often highly predictable. For example, “shrieking” or “scream-like” musical sounds can be anticipated for scenes portraying pure terror. Another commonly used musical device in scary film music is the drone tone–a sustained constant pitch. These musical devices are ubiquitous in films even beyond Hollywood productions, an indication of their effectiveness in inducing or representing fear in audiences. While both of these scary film devices–drones and scream-like sounds–might simply be explained as learned cultural conventions, there are also plausible ecological, ethological, and evolutionary reasons that explain their effectiveness. The following studies are examining music and fear.

Screaming Strings of the Silver Screen: Signaling Fear with Acoustic Features of Screams

As mentioned above, horror film music often uses scream-like sounds to inspire terror in the viewer. While the most famous example is probably Psycho (1960), there are many other well-known scream-like moments in many other scary film soundtracks. My motivating question is: Do these scream-like musical moments actually sound like human screams? To test this, I will be running an acoustic analyses on a collection of scream-like musical excerpts. The results will be presented at the International Music Perception and Cognition Conference in Graz, Austria in July 2018.

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Investigating the suspenseful potential of drone tones using ambiguous images

Drone tones are a common feature for suspense in film music. While the use of a drone tone could have come out of some topics in classical music, there also may be ethological reasons why drone tones evoke anxiety. I aim to test this possibility with a study involving ambiguous images. The results of the study will be presented at the International Music Perception and Cognition Conference in Graz, Austria in July 2018.

Performance Perception and Decision Making Research

Each musical performance is built from hundreds of decisions, some made deliberately and some unconsciously. Many of these choices are difficult to explain. I use empirical methods to test hypotheses about how musical decisions are made. Below are examples of my more recent studies.

The upper register in string playing and vocal affective cues

As part of my Master’s thesis, I researched a common practice I witnessed as a cellist: the concept that moving a melody from a low position (near the scroll) on a high string to a higher position (closer to the bridge) on a lower string would make it sound more expressive. My main hypothesis was that this practice could be mimicking the vocal affective cue in which speaking in the upper register of one’s voice communicates a high level of emotionality, such as with anger, fear, or surprise. The results of this study are published in my master’s thesis online through Ohio State University and are also published in the proceeds of the International Conference for Music Perception and Cognition in July 2016.


Animated Performance: Using motion capture to explore expressive performer motion

I am interested in how an audience discerns the level of ability of a performer. This study focused on the possible effects of the performer’s expressive motion on the audience’s judgement of their performance. Specifically, I hypothesized that participants would prefer a performer to have more expressive motion because they perceived it as communicating a higher level of playing. Motion capture technology was used to capture the movement of four musicians. These captures were animated in such a way that participants were able to alter the overall magnitude of the performers’  motion to be greater or lesser while not effecting the original sound recording. The results of this will be published in Music Theory Online.