Ominous music is making us dislike sharks, study finds

Negativity towards sharks ‘partly due’ to soundtracks akin to famous ‘Jaws’ theme

Sharks get a bad rap, partly due to the ominous soundtracks which often accompany the documentaries and films they appear in, according to new research.

Negative sentiments towards sharks are largely based on false assumptions about the frequency of attacks involving humans and unfair news coverage, according to researchers from the University of California San Diego.

"Sharks have been vilified in human culture for centuries," says the study, which was published on Wednesday in the journal PLoS ONE.

For many, the fear of sharks can be traced to the 1975 movie Jaws, whose famous soundtrack has become "deeply rooted in popular culture".


The two-tone, grim piece of music is designed to “evoke haunting images of surfacing dorsal fins, swimmers’ legs underwater and the histrionic combination of blood and bubbles”.

The latest study theorised that similarly scary music in documentaries has the same effect on people and by extension, their willingness to conserve sharks, which is generally low compared to other animals.

During three experiments involving more than 2,000 people, participants were asked to view a 60-second clip of sharks swimming. The videos were set to either uplifting music, ominous music or silence.

Participants were then asked to answer questions which measured their perceptions of sharks and willingness to conserve them.

The study found that those who listened to the ominous music viewed sharks more negatively than those who heard uplifting music or silence.

While the negative music did not make people less likely to support shark conservation, the study showed that positive music increased positive attitudes towards conservation.

Because documentaries are a primary source of information for most people, the research suggests that soundtracks should be taken into account for their impact on viewers.

“Filmmakers, journalists, and exhibit designers set the tone of their works, and, while an ominous soundtrack may enhance their entertainment aspect, it may also undermine their educational value by biasing viewers’ perceptions of sharks,” says the study.

Dean Ruxton

Dean Ruxton

Dean Ruxton is an Audience Editor at The Irish Times. He also writes the Lost Leads archive series