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Movie Music and Theory of Mind

Flickr Creative Commons / anyjazz65Movie music can have a huge impact on our perception of a film. Ever since the days of “silent” movies, filmmakers have recognized that music enhances the movie-going experience.

The earliest movies were shown in halls with live accompanists playing pianos and organs. Some films were even accompanied with full live orchestras. Why would movie companies go to such expense, if not to make viewers enjoy the film more?

Movies like “Jaws” in 1975 incited terror in their audiences simply by playing scary music while showing pictures of empty ocean. Marilyn Boltz has found that music can actually affect viewers’ memory of movie scenes: Depending on what music is played, viewers will “remember” seeing different objects — in some cases objects that weren’t even present in the scene.

A team led by Berthold Hoeckner wanted to know if movie music also affects how we perceive others’ thoughts. While there is a lot of research confirming that music can affect our perception of characters’ emotions, there has been much less study of theory of mind.

Hoeckner’s team showed volunteers 28 movie clips that all ended with “reaction shots:” closeups of a character’s face showing their response to an earlier event. Half of the clips were accompanied by thriller music like the score from “Total Recall,” while the other half was accompanied by melodramatic music like the score of “Far from Heaven.” A separate set of volunteers saw all the clips with no sound at all.

The reaction shots themselves were chosen from an array of films that were likely to be unfamiliar to most viewers (the only film we recognized from the list was “Cinema Paradiso”) and were all rated by a different set of viewers as emotionally neutral.

After watching each clip, the volunteers responded to two questions: “How likable or unlikable is the character?” and “How certain are you that you know what each character is thinking?” Here are the results:


Each of the clips was shown to some viewers with melodramatic music and some viewers with thriller music, and when the ratings of all viewers were averaged together, as expected, characters portrayed with melodramatic music were seen as significantly more likable than those with no music and thriller music. Thriller music also made characters significantly less likable than no music.

But what was new about this study was the certainty rating. Melodramatic music led to significantly more certainty about the character’s thoughts than both no music and thriller music. This suggests that movie music can not only manipulate the audience’s emotions, but also their theory of mind. Remember, viewers saw the same clips, so just playing different music along with each clip was enough to affect their confidence that they knew what the character on screen was thinking.

Interestingly, while the difference in certainty between melodramatic music and no music was significant, the difference between no music and thriller music was not. So although there is a trend of thriller music affecting certainty in knowing what the character onscreen thinks, melodramatic music appears to be primarily responsible for the shift in certainty. The researchers believe this is because melodramatic music generally makes characters more sympathetic.

Imagine if, instead of his well-known sinister theme, Darth Vader was always accompanied by Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto #2: we might see him in a completely different, more sympathetic light, and be quite certain of our beliefs.


Hoeckner B., Wyatt E., Decety J. & Nusbaum H. (2011). Film music influences how viewers relate to movie characters., Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 5 (2) 146-153. DOI:

Image credit: Flickr Creative Commons / anyjazz65

Movie Music and Theory of Mind

Dave and Greta Munger

Greta Munger is a professor of psychology at Davidson College. Dave Munger is a writer and editor. They have been writing about psychology online since 2005, at numerous sites including,, and

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APA Reference
Munger, D. (2018). Movie Music and Theory of Mind. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 13, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 18 Sep 2014)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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