Key Takeaway:

Studies in psychology are beginning to understand how music helps people remember films, scenes, and characters. Music can help us understand characters, create deeper emotional links, and create mood-congruency effects when the music and movie both make us feel the same way. Irony and mood-incongruity effects occur when music and movies make us feel different emotions, making scenes more memorable. This can be seen in audio and video pairings, as well as other senses like smells. However, these effects don’t last long and are shaped by our experiences and stored in our long-term memory. It’s unclear if these effects can have lasting effects beyond the few minutes of a movie trailer or scene. Understanding the connection between music and memory could lead to new ways to understand filmmaking.


An estimated 15% of American adults are able to watch a movie every single day. Getting away from the daily grind and relaxing with friends and family is a great way to spend time. But what do you remember about the movie you saw last night?

The title, a rough outline of the plot, or the Hollywood star who played the lead role may come to mind. But look a little further. How quickly does a certain scene from a movie come to mind? More importantly, can you hear or recognise the music in the movie?

Music has been used by filmmakers for a long time to help people remember films, scenes, and characters. Now, studies in psychology are starting to figure out how this process works.

Because music is such an important part of movies, we sometimes remember things that aren’t true. After watching a short movie scene, up to two-thirds of the people who took part in the study thought that it had a musical score, even though it didn’t. This is known as “expectancy bias” among scientists.

Earworms, or songs that stick in our minds, are often a part of a good musical score. As a rule, these are songs that have had recent runs at the top of the music charts.

When paired with a movie scene, new takes on old hits help keep people interested. Their catchy, sing-along songs are very well known because they’ve been around for a long time. Because of this, they are easily used as a marketing hook, especially in movie trailers, where there isn’t much time to make an impression.

The music also helps us understand the characters. New research shows that listening to 15 seconds of scary music can help you notice when the characters on the screen are showing signs of fear on their faces.

However, how do deeper emotional links get made? There are many methods that filmmakers use to try to make memorable and unique movie scenes. A lot of the time, they focus on how the pairing of sound and image makes them feel. But is there solid proof that music can really change how we remember sights in this way?

Studying the connection between music and memory has shown that they are very strong. When watching a good or bad movie scene, people remember the actions, characters, and ending more accurately if the music has a similar good or bad emotional quality.

It’s called a mood-congruency effect when the music and movie both make you feel the same way. “Chunking” memory fragments into a quick, easy, and more manageable whole in our minds helps us remember what we’ve seen before.

Irony and a lack of sense

Being able to say one thing but mean something else is related to irony. It’s often thought of as a linguistic tool, but it’s also clear when sound and image are paired. Scenes that show sad, angry, or fearful feelings or events are paired with music that makes you feel good. This is called ironic contrast.

Because these two things don’t go together, the background changes the mood of the scene, usually making it more sarcastic or sad, which makes it memorable.

The films Bowling for Columbine and A Clockwork Orange both have violent scenes with music that doesn’t go with them.

Mood-incongruity effects are another surprise for people who are watching. A lot of what we know about what happens next comes from our own experiences and connections with musical conventions.

For example, when we watch a short clip of a wedding party set to slow, sad music, we notice that the visual content doesn’t match up with what we know about wedding parties from direct or indirect experiences. “Where is the upbeat music for the party guests to dance to?” might be the question that the movie script says to us. We notice the mood-incongruity effect of the music even more when we are trying to find the answer.

In this way, we can create a clearer picture in our minds. We’ve even checked this out in the lab. Sixty people were asked to watch a trailer for a romantic comedy with either sad, happy or no music. Later, we tested how well they remembered the caravan. Those who had heard the sad music remembered the scene better than those who had seen it with happy music or no music at all.

It’s not just audio and video pairings that can cause mood inconsistency effects. They are quick and easy ways to tell when someone is breaking our expectations in our immediate surroundings. You can find them with other senses as well, like smells. Our brains have something like a “what’s next” setting that makes us pay more attention, which helps us remember the event better.

It looks like these effects don’t last very long. It’s still not clear if they can have any lasting effects beyond the few minutes of a movie trailer or a movie scene. In the end, they are shaped by what we’ve already done and stored in our long-term memory, ready for the next plot twist.

What happens if our memories of these music-induced emotions are broken up or missing altogether? This could happen to people who are deaf or hard of hearing.

Can labelling a piece of music as “ominous” have the same ironic contrast effects on memory as, say, listening to music that sounds ominous? Is the irony lost if the unexpected turns out to be the expected? If you can answer these questions, you might be able to enter a new world of films.

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