Da-Na, Da-Na ... Spooky Music Makes People More Afraid of Sharks

Sharks with Diver
A diver swims with great white sharks. (Image credit: solarseven | Shutterstock.com)

That scary, ominous music that plays whenever sharks are featured on nature documentaries is taking a big toll: It's making people feel unjustly terrified of sharks, and these negative feelings are likely hindering efforts to save and protect the magnificent fish, a new study finds.

Researchers showed 2,100 people a 60-second video clip of sharks that was either silent or set to ominous or uplifting music. People who watched the "frightening" music clip tended to rate sharks more negatively compared with people who watched the video with uplifting music or silence, they found.

This finding is concerning, as most people view documentaries as educational, and may not be aware that these so-called objective shows are actually eroding their feelings toward sharks, said study lead researcher Andrew Nosal, an assistant professor of biological sciences at Saint Katherine College in San Marcos, California, and a visiting assistant researcher at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego.  [7 Unanswered Questions About Sharks]

"While it may be tempting to feature sharks with ominous background music to maximize the entertainment aspect of documentaries, news packages or even live exhibits, this may also undermine their educational value by biasing viewers' perceptions of sharks," Nosal told Live Science in an email.   

It's no surprise that background music can influence people's feelings. Music can set the mood, engage the viewer emotionally and convey unspoken commentary and judgment, Nosal said. However, he decided to look into the matter more after noticing that music accompanying sharks was often "ominous and unsettling, à la [the movie] 'Jaws,'" compared with the majestic, often playful music that accompanies other animals, such as dolphins, he said.

Leopard sharks swimming off the coast of California. (Image credit: Andrew Nosal)

The findings will hopefully make filmmakers think twice before pairing shark footage with menacing music in the future, Nosal said. Especially because, in the long run, negative perceptions of sharks may hurt conservation efforts that rely on public support, he said.

The study is "extremely well done," said Robert Hueter, the director of the Center for Shark Research at the Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Florida, who was not involved with the study. 

"People might consider this to have been a no-brainer, but in fact no one had ever taken the time to do this systematically and scientifically," Hueter said.

Hueter added that he's given countless interviews on sharks for news outlets over the years, and it's not uncommon for newscasters to play ominous music during the segment, and the music unfortunately "reinforces people's perceptions of sharks as being dangerous killers," he said.

The study was published online today (Aug. 3) in the journal PLOS ONE.

Original article on Live Science.

Laura Geggel

Laura is the archaeology and Life's Little Mysteries editor at Live Science. She also reports on general science, including paleontology. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Scholastic, Popular Science and Spectrum, a site on autism research. She has won multiple awards from the Society of Professional Journalists and the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association for her reporting at a weekly newspaper near Seattle. Laura holds a bachelor's degree in English literature and psychology from Washington University in St. Louis and a master's degree in science writing from NYU.