The Role of Music in the Experience of Moving Images:
A Cognitive Scientific Perspective
A presentation by Dr. Annabel Cohen
MIMM Workshop: Musical Connections in the Brain: Language, Dance and the Visual Arts
Saturday, November 29, 2008, McMaster University
Review and Response by
In this presentation, Dr. Cohen examined the role of music in how we perceive motion pictures. Her experiment had the participants view Buster Keaton’s famous sequence called “The Railroader.” At various times during the film and extraneous object appeared on the screen, in this case, the letter “X”. One group of participants viewed the film with its original musical background, music that was congruous to the action. The other group viewed the same sequence with the same occurrences of the “X” but with background music that was incongruous. The second group scored significantly higher in their perception of the extraneous object.
Dr. Cohen the presented a schematic representation of the dynamics occurring when one views a film that provoke a response from the viewer. At the center was the film itself, what Dr. Cohen referred to as the “working narrative.” Below it was a list of elements that shape the film: screenplay, movement, dialogue, colour and, of course, musical sound. Above the working narrative were personal experiences of the viewer. It is important to note that the elements of the film become part of the viewer’s personal experience and, in turn, help shape the experience of the motion picture.
Cohen’s conclusion suggests that the degree of congruence of the music significantly shapes one’s perception.
I was immediately reminded of the film "Good Morning Vietnam" where the famous “What A Wonderful World” is sung by Louis Armstrong against most horrific backdrops. There is little doubt that such a powerful incongruence, through the power of juxtaposition, enormously heightens the significance of the scene being viewed. So, too, in the film “Philadelphia,” the scene where the aids-stricken character played by Tom Hanks moves about his apartment to the aria achieves its power through the congruence of the music and the pain and sorrow of the listener.
It’s clear that music plays a major role in our response to moving picture.
As a research study, however, I found this to be hardly earth-shattering, in particular the dynamic of response the Cohen presented. Such a dynamic has been researched for decades, especially in the field of literature. Louise Rosenblatt (The Reader, The Text, The Poem: A Transactional Theory of the Literary Work. 1978) articulated such a dynamic as early as the 1950’s, formalizing it into a book in 1978. Her work would have a significant impact on the teaching of literature.
In the area of music, Eleanor Stubley (The Performer, the Score, the Work: Musical Performance and Transactional Reading. Journal of Aesthetic Education, 1995 Vol. 29, No.3, p. 55), using the same concept as Rosenblatt – “transactional” – explores how the musician’s personal experience shapes their response to a piece of music through both practice and performance.
Some interesting areas for further exploration in Cohen’s study might involve what, indeed, renders a particular piece of music or kind of music “congruous” with respect to the moving images one views. What role does culture – music or otherwise – play in this? Another would be simply to have participants articulate their personal response to a motion picture scene comparing background music that is congruous and incongruous.
Perhaps a most fascinating and useful study would be to examine people’s response to advertising. What role does the congruity of music play as it works with the images we see?