Shark tunes

  • Sharks
Years funded
  • 2014
  • Archived
Project type
  • Research

We know that music changes our mood, but can it also affect our feelings towards an animal? Andrew wants to know if the scary soundtracks that filmmakers choose amplify our fear of sharks.

Shark tunes

Andrew Nosal

Project leader
About the project leader

I am a father, a husband and a marine biologist. I love sharks, my wife loves sharks and my daughter loves sharks (as much as a seven-month-old can). We buy her shark everything: shark socks, shark pyjamas, shark toys, shark bathrobes, shark bibs and shark shoes. For Halloween this year she was an adorable shark! I look forward to snorkelling and scuba diving with her to share the company of sharks in their natural environment.

We are teaching our child to appreciate nature – all of it, including (and especially) sharks. I believe the public’s fear of sharks is mostly learned...

PROJECT LOCATION : San Diego, California, USA
Project details

The effect of documentary background music on viewers’ perception of and willingness to protect sharks

Key objective

To investigate the subconscious effect of background music in documentary footage on viewers’ perception of and willingness to protect sharks.

Why is this important

Shark populations worldwide are declining due to overfishing, habitat destruction and finning. Efforts to mitigate these threats are hindered by negative public opinion and fear of sharks – one of which is menacing music that often accompanies footage of sharks, subconsciously inciting fear.


The fear of sharks is deeply rooted in a popular culture driven by mass media that perpetuates erroneous information about sharks. Movies like Jaws and sensationalist news coverage of shark ‘attacks’ elicit that fear and, by extension, a reluctance to protect sharks. Scary background music in shark documentaries likely also incites fear subconsciously, but has never been systematically examined.

Background music accompanying visual media engages viewers on an emotional level, sets the mood, and conveys unspoken commentary and judgment. Characters are perceived to be evil or heroic depending on how background music is used to establish thematic identity. In shark documentaries, ominous background music is a tacit validation of viewers’ preconceived notions of sharks and reinforces irrational fears. Music is known to elicit emotions like happiness, sadness, anger, fear, awe and peace, and to affect attitude and behaviour. Background music in retail stores is used to attract, retain and manipulate a particular clientele to maximise shopping duration and sales volume. Background music also influences the perception of other sensory stimuli, such as taste. I hypothesise that the perception of sharks reflects the emotional connotations of the background music.

In a pilot study I conducted, survey participants who viewed a one-minute video clip of swimming sharks set to ‘playful’ music rated sharks as 44.2% less scary, 83.3% more playful and donated 39.8% more to a shark conservation charity than participants that viewed the same clip set to ‘scary’ music.

Aims & objectives

The aims and objectives of this project are to:

  • Determine the effects of background music in documentary footage on how sharks are perceived. Does suspenseful, dissonant music incite fear?
  • Determine the effects of background music in documentary footage on willingness to protect sharks.
  • Repeat the above objectives using dolphins instead of sharks.
  • Survey the emotional connotations of the background music that accompanies shark and dolphin footage in popular nature documentaries by characterising elements of the dynamics, rhythm, spectrum and harmony that are related to emotion and mood.