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The Kuleshov Effect

Updated: Apr 11

What Russian filmmaking can teach us about the impact of sound

In the wake of the 20th century the Soviet filmmaker Lev Kuleshov (1899-1970) carried out an experiment aimed to examine the comprehension of emotion in the context of facial expressions.

The experiment was designed by filming the famous russian actor Ivan Mozhukin looking into the camera with a neutral facial expression and then when shown to an audience the film clip was intercutting the face with a bowl of soup, a female in a coffin or a beautiful woman lying on a couch.

Allegedly the neutral face was interpreted as either hungry, sad or lustful respectively depending on the context. Today this phenomenon is cited in almost all introductory books on film theory as the Kuleshov effect and even the highly influential Alfred Hitchcock is known to have used this exact tool masterfully in filmmaking.

Most likely we aren’t as easily fooled when exposed to the experiment in the above videos, a reason for this is probably because we know what is going. Luckily more recent studies performed in scientific settings comes to our aid by confirming the correlation.

An auditory Kuleshov effect

Now you are probably thinking: “How in the world are psychology and film theory supposed to relate to sonic branding?”, fear not, psychology researchers Baranowski and Hecht connected the dots in 2017 by examining the possibility of an auditory Kuleshov effect:

In short, the participants were instructed to rate the perceived emotional state of a given actor in 27 different film clips, but instead of the original intercutting, the clips were accompanied by instrumental music categorized as either happy, sad or without music as control. In sum the research concludes that the emotional timbre of music influences how the viewer judges a given film clip.

The rationale behind the original Kuleshov effect is that a given facial expression is perceived relative to the entire context - a laughing person is surely not seen as sad in most situations, but when presented with ambiguity like in the case of a neutral face we depend on the context to establish meaning and interpret emotion.

The importance of musical fit​

While all of these studies admittedly measure specifically our ability to process the emotion of a face in a given visual or audible context, the fact that music possess the ability to alter or enhance our perception of a visual input - at least concerning emotions, proves the importance of scrutinizing the audible material a brand might use in order to establish the right musical fit.

In situations where different emotional timbres could fit in an equilibristic manner this knowledge and concept might even serve as a powerful tool in the right hands. Try it out yourself by experiencing the different feel of the below videos: It is two completely different stories being told.Furthermore, this idea opens up another concept, namely that of musical fit.