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The Brilliance of the 1975 Jaws theme

The Jaws theme is undoubtedly one of the most iconic themes ever written for the screen. In an interview, John Williams once explained that when he started working on it, his intention was to create the effect of a shark “grinding at you, just as a shark would do, instinctual, relentless, unstoppable”. He saw it as a sea chase. He got is so right.  

But how exactly did he do it?

There’s the merits of the musical composition, of course. But more specifically, what makes this tune so effective is the way Williams manages to trigger a range of psychophysiological responses in the audience through an interplay of sound attributes.

We’ve all experienced the power of music to evoke vivid imagery and emotions, and to make us want to move to its rhythms and melodies. The reason this happens has a lot to do with the purpose of sensation and perception.

Ultimately, perception is all about figuring out our surroundings, planning our actions, and executing them. There are many areas in the brain dedicated to facilitating the process. Although they are largely autonomous, they do have some degree of interaction between them that allows them to coordinate behaviour. In the case of hearing, for example, when the auditory cortex is triggered, it also engages the parts of the brain involved in activities such memory retrieval, vision, planning, temporal and spatial processing, and motion. 

And this is why music evokes images and why we want to jumpt on the dance floor when we hear our favourite tune.

It is also why, when we listen to the Jaws theme, our unconscious primal fears get activated, our hearts start racing, and we ‘see’ the shark coming at us, relentlessly and with only one thing in mind. 

The sound attributes that have allowed Williams to achieve this effect are pitch, loudness and rhythm.

You may have noticed how we talk of pitch as going “up” or “down”. This is because over millions of years our brains have built cross-modal and psychological associations that make us perceive pitch in terms of vertical space. Our embodied experiences too contribute to this – when we make low-pitched sounds, for example, our chest resonates, but when we make high-pitched sounds, they seem to be located more in the head.

The Jaws theme starts with a very low pitch but it quickly gets higher and higher, giving us the impression of the shark rising to the surface, where its victims are.

Pitch also gives us a sense of speed. What happens to your car or motorbike engine when you speed it up? It goes up in pitch due to an increase of vibrations per second. So the rise in pitch in the Jaws theme also gives us the impression that the shark is moving faster and faster.

Yet another thing to note about low pitch is that our brains are primed to perceive any creature that sounds low-pitched as big and dangerous. 

Then there’s loudness. Loudness conveys two things about an object or event: size and proximity. A tune representing a shark that starts with a low pitch that rapidly goes up and that gets louder and louder can only do one thing – scare the wits out of anyone. 

And if that wasn’t enough, there’s also the rhythm of the piece, which also gets faster and faster. 

The famous two notes remind one, in the context of a shark about to attack its prey, of the movement of a fish tail swinging from side to side. As the rhythm gathers pace, we can almost feel the shark increasing its thrust.

But the two notes also remind us of the sound of a heartbeat, and that leads to entrainment, i.e., to our heartbeat synchronising with the rhythm of the music and getting faster as a result of the music’s increasing pace.

And what about that note that jumps in from time to time and that conjures up images of the shark biting repeatedly? I love that one.

It’s almost a miracle that the theme hasn’t give anyone a heart attack yet.


Offscreen sound in I Love You, Phillip Morris’ dance scene: How deep is your love?
The voices of the departed and Brighton Rock (2010)