I recently came across an interesting paper online that talks about the cognitive effects of music on the listener. The report, “The Functions of Music in Multimedia: A Cognitive Approach,” by psychology professor Annabel J. Cohen, was presented to the Conference on Music Perception and Cognition 11 years ago. It’s a pretty difficult read, filled with polysyllabic psychological and musical terminology.
But it’s also quite useful for anyone who uses music in a multimedia project.
Here are a few take-aways:
1. Change versus continuity. “Music is sound organized in time, and this organization helps to connect disparate events in other domains,” the paper says. “Thus, a break in the music can signal a change in the narrative or, conversely, continuous music signals the continuation of the current theme.”
2. Communication of meaning. “The visual screen is often referred to as two-dimensional… with music adding emotion as a third dimension,” Cohen writes. “Different features of music convey emotional meaning. For example, sadness is conveyed by slow pace, falling countour, low pitch and the minor mode, and happiness is conveyed by fast tempo, rising tempo, high pitch and the major mode.”
This is especially true, Cohen writes, when the meaning of the images isn’t immediately apparent. She cites a study that showed that “two contrasting excerpts of background music systematically altered the interpretation of two people either fifghting or playing . Yet for an unambiguous fight scene, these same background piece of music had litte effect.”
3. Music as a cue for memory. Music, Cohen says, can take on the meaning of whatever it accompanies, whether it be an individual character or a theme. And studies have shown that the msuic0meaning correlation can be established by a single instance in which both elements are present.
4. “It is a simple fact,” she writes, “that when there is music, more of the brain is active.” Such an effect can heighten focus and make the experience more real, she writes.