When watching a movie, music plays a significant role in how we interpret the story and its characters. Berthold Hoeckner, Emma Wyatt, Jean Decety, and Howard Nusbaum (University of Chicago) were interested in how music in film might affect empathy. They predicted that music will serve as a vehicle for the audience to better understand and identify with a character’s feelings. Ambiguous scenes were paired with either melodramatic or thriller music to investigate whether the type of music can influence the viewers’ reactions. Participants were asked to either view several film clips accompanied by either melodramatic or thriller music (N = 16) or view the same clips with no background music (N = 16). Subsequently, the participants completed questionnaire about the how likeable the character was and how sure they were of their ability to pinpoint the character’s thoughts. Additionally, participants partook in a recall task involving the identification of the character’s emotions based on still images from the previously presented clips. What they found was that viewers who saw clips accompanied by music saw the character differently compared to those who saw clips without music. Moreover, different effects were observed depending on the type of music that was used. Melodramatic music led viewers to see the character as more likeable and gave them more confidence in knowing what the character was thinking, compared to no music. In contrast, thriller music made participants feel more uncertain about what the character was thinking and decreased how likeable they saw the character. Both genres of music also evoked certain emotions in the participants. Melodramatic music elicited feelings of love, whereas thriller music aroused anger. These emotions were highly related to the participants’ likeability ratings. Music helped the audience relate to the character by illustrating the character’s emotions and arousing those emotions in the participants. The results suggest that music can influence our ability to emphasize with characters. Although this study demonstrated a strong connection between film music and empathy, further studies are needed to investigate how the way we process film music can affect our emotional attachment.
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Hoeckner, B. Wyatt, E. W., Decety, J., & Nusbaum, H. (2011). Film music influences how viewers relate to movie characters. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 5, 146–153.