Silent movies were never really silent. From the earliest days of the art form, movie makers understood that movies without sound can be deadly boring. A piano player always accompanied the action on the screen to help audiences emotionally enter into the world of the moving pictures. Filmmakers have always intuitively understood that music and movies can work together in partnership.

The rhythm of storytelling connects the past of our experience with our brain’s predictions about the future. Music works together with moving pictures to play a game with our expectations. Foreshadowing, amplifying, creating empty dramatic space or “air” between one moment and the next, and mirroring, or sometimes contradicting, what’s on the screen. Music draws out not just our emotions but also puts our imagination to work to find a more pointed interpretation of what we see. In the case of advertising, music helps to create a more memorable brand story.

Memory of music and memory of film both involve hierarchical encoding of content. Not all notes in a musical phrase and not all images in a film sequence are equally important. Experiments have shown that musicians are faster and more accurate at recalling whether a certain note appears in a musical piece if that note falls on a strong beat, rather than being in the middle of a phrase.

The beat is the fundamental unit of structure not only of music but also of visual storytelling. The images of a television commercial that fall on the beat of an attention curve—which are the images that stand out most clearly in audience memory minutes after seeing the commercial—are the most predictive of ad memorability.

To study how music and moving pictures interact in memory we performed a simple experiment with Disney’s, Sorcerer’s Apprentice, a classic example of  storytelling without words. We recruited two matched samples of consumers who had not seen the movie before. One group saw the full music video. The other group saw the clip with the sound turned off. Afterward, their memories of the visual images in the film were measured.

We found significant improvement in memory of key moments of the film. Our conclusions were that music operates selectively, accenting and highlighting, and increasing visual memory.

Significantly, the number of visual beats—the memory peaks of the film—nearly doubled as a result of the interplay between the music and the visuals.

For more information, please contact Sonya Duran (