What A Pitch

The fact that speech inflections can alter your perception of any given words, thus acting as “emotional vocal communication” serves to illustrate the influence of pitch to cause affect in those listening (Schneck, Berger, & Rowland, 2005, p. 161). In Western music, “rhythm and pitch are as the two primary parameters or musical structure”, and one study found that pitch was of higher priority in eliciting emotions (Hamilton, 2007, p. 122; Schellenberg, Krysciak & Campbell, 2000). As a creative practitioner myself hoping to elicit emotional responses from an audience, this begs the question:

How can composers and sound designers control the affect of audiences through the musical aesthetics of pitch?

Through research I have found that bass materialism acts as a way to enact sonic dominance over individuals. In the text Sonic Warfare: Sound, Affect, and the Ecology of Fear, bass materialism is defined as performance of “microrhythmic production and occupation of space-times by collectively engineered vibration” (Goodman, Massumi & Manning, 2009, p. 172). This term will be further explored with the use of a musical or rather sound excerpt from a film.

Bass in Film

Bass materialism acts as a clear illustration of the way human psychology and physiology work in relation to sound. In lieu of these findings, aesthetic principles were formed as evident in the creative decisions of sound designers. The film War of the Worlds (2005) features a unique sound when the protagonist and the surrounding civilisation are faced with an alien invasion. This unique sound is heard when the giant tripods raise, and before they start to wipe out humans with a heat ray (See Video Link). The sound is made up of low bass frequencies and to my ears, the sounds seem to have been manipulated in the mixing and production process. The raw recordings were a combination of the “sounds of a didgeridoo, an Aboriginal Australian wind instrument, and the djembe – a West African drum” (Dixon, 2018).

Bass frequencies elicit fear and danger compared to treble frequencies because “all humans are programmed to recognise… low sounds with large things, and high sounds with small things”, thus low sounds are more strongly associated with a potential predator (Sideways, 2016). Schunpp et al. (2010) informs readers of the way in which our ears are an important element in our survival as they allow us to aurally map the world around us. This phenomenon produces a set of aesthetic principles that the artist can follow, and that sound designer Michael Babcock utilised for the film. Moving out from the silent era and into today’s modern films, there is an increasing respect for sound designers that has been made evident by literature that is starting to factor “aural mise-en-scène” into film criticisms (Kolker, 2015, p. 123). If we consider that many audience members were in cinemas or had access to a good sound system, it would be necessary to factor in the effect the sound design had on a human’s physiology. When subwoofers are in place, and bass tones are being heard in short and rare amounts in order to make them more impactful during the film, the frequency can cause an ‘envelopment’ effect. This effect happens due to the frequency's ability to shake “our material body'' and act as “an extension of ourselves”, thus “reducing the sense of mediation between audience and virtual space” (Collins, 2013, p. 54).

Research into bass materialism has assisted in better understanding how certain musical aesthetic principles can be utilised for the purposes of affecting the audience. Babcock’s sound design for the film can be seen in other films hoping to achieve the same responses from audiences, and students of music have even tried to reproduce the sound in the mixing and production stage (Wierzbicki, 2012, p. 183; BigJerr, 2018).

Concluding Remarks

By illustrating the physiology and psychological effects of bass materialism, I have gained a better understanding of the set of aesthetic principles that can be applied to composition. The example from War of the Worlds gave insight into the intense and dramatic effect of bass frequencies. Future research includes how sound manipulation in a DAW should be considered in terms of its implications in eliciting the fear of the unknown, since digital composition is relatively new within the mainstream. Additionally, a look into the way sub frequencies work in influencing movement in audiences such as in dance and hip hop music would be interesting to evaluate considering the fear element - possibly relating it to subconscious submission.


BigJerr. (2018, March 14). Iconic Movie Sound Recreation - War of the Worlds Alien Tripod Sound [online video]. Youtube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aKDD4gvodNg&t=347s

Dixon, D. (2018, November 1). 8 iconic film sound effects and how they were made. The Vinyl Factory. https://thevinylfactory.com/features/iconic-film-sound-effects-how-they-were-made/

Hamilton, A. (2007). Aesthetics and music. Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.

Kolker, R. (2015). Film, form, and culture : Fourth edition. Taylor & Francis Group.

Schellenberg, E. G., Krysciak, A. M., & Campbell, R. J. (2000). Perceiving Emotion in Melody: Interactive Effects of Pitch and Rhythm. Music Perception: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 18(2), 155–171. https://doi.org/10.2307/40285907

Schneck, D. J., & Berger, D. S. (2005). The music effect : Music physiology and clinical applications. Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Schnup, J., Nelken, I., King, J. A. (2010). Auditory Neuroscience: Making Sense of Sound. MIT Press.

Sideways. (2015, August 27). How to make music sound scary [online video]. Youtube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S-u9YDDrTFo

Spielberg, S. (Director). (2005). War of the Worlds [Film]. Paramount Pictures; Dreamworks Pictures; Amblin Entertainment; Cruise/Wagner Productions.

Wierzbicki, J. (Ed.). (2012). Music, sound and filmmakers : Sonic style in cinema. Taylor & Francis Group.