'Jaws' music may bite into conservationists' work

By Karin Brulliard

Scene from the Steven Spielberg's terror-in-the-water film, Jaws, released in 1975.
Scene from the Steven Spielberg's terror-in-the-water film, Jaws, released in 1975.

The 1975 Jaws theme is just 2 minutes, 49 seconds of brass, strings and drums. But the sense of dread it evokes has endured for 41 years, which means composer John Williams did his job very, very well.

"We can play the shark music even if he wasn't present and suggest that he's coming, and by getting louder and louder and louder - even if the camera doesn't move - you get a sense that he is getting closer to you because music is getting faster or louder or both," Williams told The Washington Post's William Booth in 2004. "You can manage and choreograph these emotions."

And so the music did, scarring the psyche of many a swimmer and beachgoer. The trouble is that the human fear of sharks that Williams tapped into has made it hard for conservationists to drum up public support for saving the animals, which are threatened by overfishing and poaching. What's more, a new study concludes, scary music like the Jaws theme may have only worsened sharks' image and interfered with efforts to help them.

You're more likely to be killed by snakes, spiders, cows and dogs.
You're more likely to be killed by snakes, spiders, cows and dogs.

"Just as the leitmotif of the Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz might evoke images of its cackling, green-skinned character, the ominously quickening motif that typifies the Jaws soundtrack may similarly evoke haunting images of surfacing dorsal fins, swimmers' legs underwater, and the histrionic combination of blood and bubbles," wrote the authors of the study published last week in PLOS One.

Those images are "histrionic" because they're unrepresentative, the researchers said, as are hyperbolic shark attack news stories that have become a hallmark of summer. In the United States, about 35 attacks take place every year on average, one of which is fatal. You're more likely to be killed by snakes, spiders, cows and dogs. Nevertheless, the authors wrote, people have a "pervasive overestimation of the likelihood of being 'attacked.' " That's because it's easier to remember extreme events, and because people tend to assess risks based on emotions and instinct, not thoughtful deliberation.

The researchers, based at the University of California-San Diego and Harvard University, noted that Jaws wasn't the only shark film set to forbidding tunes; so are lots of nature documentaries. They wanted to know whether the soundtracks contributed to human perceptions of the big fish. To do that, they played a 60-second video of sharks "swimming innocuously" for 2000 online survey participants, then asked them to pick words such as "scary" or "beautiful" to describe sharks.

Some watched while listening to ominous music, which an independent music expert described as having "low-range string textures" and being "atmospheric and modal with only fragments of melody." Others heard uplifting tunes, which also featured low strings used "harmonically rather than modally" and had "a strong, bright sound," the expert said. Some heard no music. Three control groups saw no video but heard either the ominous or uplifting music, or none at all.

Scene from the 1975 film Jaws. The scary theme music may have worsened sharks' image and interfered with efforts to help them.
Scene from the 1975 film Jaws. The scary theme music may have worsened sharks' image and interfered with efforts to help them.

Those who heard the menacing music, the study said, described the sharks "significantly more negatively" than the other groups. Those who didn't see the video showed no real differences in perceptions of sharks, which, the authors argue, means the music alone doesn't drive the feelings - it's the combination of notes and images.

The findings should serve as a warning to filmmakers, journalists and even museum exhibit designers, the study said.

"While an ominous soundtrack may enhance their entertainment aspect, it may also undermine their educational value by biasing viewers' perceptions of sharks," the authors wrote. "This, in turn, may impede legitimate shark conservation efforts and fuel counterproductive management programs like culling and setting shark nets."

- Washington Post

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