FEAR VS. HUMOR – how are they different for sound design?
Garath Wood (firstname.lastname@example.org) asks:
The title of my dissertation, ‘In Motion Picture, are some emotions harder to convey through sound than others?,’ arose due to the conclusion that me and my peers came to; that most of the writings and teachings on sound design that we had studied so far focused on inducing more negative emotions of fear and tension on the audience, for example some of the most written about films in terms of sound design are often sci-fi or action films that require this kind of impact. Why do you think that may be?
A lot of my coursework has required that I study the sound of such films, so perhaps this has led me to this train of thought, but having started to look at neurology for this dissertation and I have found that again, the negative emotions are too, far more established in writings. Do you think that it is because the parts of the brain associated with negative emotions are more primitive, that its easier to explain?(I understand you have a neuro background, I’d never normally ask that sort of question!)
So to summarise this paragraph, is it easier to scare someone than make them laugh with sound?
Without going into too much neurophysiology, I’d say that sounds
relating to fear or anxiety (tension) are processed by our primitive
brains for the purpose of survival or avoidance of pain. This is
common with many animals including mammals, birds, reptiles and fish.
A sound design that elicits anxiety, fear or surprise will work on
most people, regardless of individual differences like age, sex,
intelligence or cultural background, because we are all reacting from
those primitive brains areas.
More positive emotions like humor or empathy require a much more
developed sense of oneself and of the world, and need a context,
learning curve and experience. This applies as well to the use of
sound in media to evoke these positive emotions in the audience.
Humor is very particular to humans, and is also very dependent on
individual differences of age, sex, intelligence or culture. A baby’s
sense of humor will be very simple and often relate to a physical
stimulus. A small child hearing a verbal joke relating to their body
or body fluids will laugh, but not understand a joke about a more
sophisticated adult topic like religion, culture or politics.
Empathy can be in the form of romance, compassion or any other form of
bonding. This is a strong element of mammalian life, especially the
need to nurture helpless infants and to protect and feed the tribe.
Communication develops into higher brain functions of language and
symbols, both acoustic and visual.
Sounds that generate positive feelings like humor or empathy require
that the listener have some reference associated with the sound. This
can be within the cultural or family context, or if we are thinking in
film sound terms, it can be a reference that is set up within the
story, characters and soundtrack. In any case, there are more
cognitive, higher brain functions needed to activate the laughter or
tears, than the primitive brain reaction of being startled by a loud
or sudden sound, or building anxiety with an unresolved, unsettling
Film study literature has approached the fear induction quality of
soundtracks more frequently because it is easier to identify across
many different films and audiences. To analyze how sound evokes the
positive emotions requires a deeper study of a specific film, story,
soundtrack and audience, which may be different than another film with
different references. Isolating variables is definitely more
challenging, but a worthy area to investigate.