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The role of background music in the experience of watching YouTube videos about death and dying


Abstract and Figures

YouTube is the largest video sharing site live at the moment. It has been used to communicate a vast array of information, while it allows for user-generated content. This paper will focus on YouTube videos that communicate death, and in particular will present findings from a preliminary study undertaken by the authors considering the role that background music plays in these videos. Specifically, this study explores the experiences of the viewers of death-related YouTube videos with and without background music while it makes comparisons in relation to the impact that music has on the viewers’ emotional experiences. We conclude that background music elicits emotions and enhances feelings of sadness and sympathy in relation to the visual content of videos while recommendations for future research are made.
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Journal of Education Culture and Society No. 2_2015
The role of background music
in the experience of watching
YouTube videos about death and dying
Department of Social, Therapeutic and Community Studies,
Goldsmiths University of London, London SE14 6NW, UK
E-mail address:
Department of Music,
Goldsmiths University of London, London SE14 6NW, UK
E-mail address:
YouTube is the largest video sharing site live at the moment. It has been used to com-
municate a vast array of information, while it allows for user-generated content. This paper
will focus on YouTube videos that communicate death, and in particular will present Þ n-
dings from a preliminary study undertaken by the authors considering the role that back-
ground music plays in these videos.
SpeciÞ cally, this study explores the experiences of the viewers of death-related YouTube
videos with and without background music while it makes comparisons in relation to the
impact that music has on the viewers’ emotional experiences.
We conclude that background music elicits emotions and enhances feelings of sadness
and sympathy in relation to the visual content of videos while recommendations for future
research are made.
Keywords: Background music; death; memorial videos; grief; YouTube.
Media and communication technologies have long been used for information
and knowledge exchange. Various themes and subjects associated with social life
have been covered by the media. Such coverage crosses geographical boundaries
while the audience remains faithful to perceptions which are shaped by personal
characteristics and past personal experiences (Gibson, 2007). In particular, media
has been used extensively to communicate death, dying, and bereavement; a
touchy but yet approachable topic in the online community (Pentaris, 2014; Field,
& Walter, 2003).
This article focuses on YouTube, a well renowned online platform that not only
circulates pieces of information to the public, but also allows the public to generate
DOI: 10.15503/jecs20152.305.319
306 Expression
content (Chang, Dale, & Liu, 2007). The user-generated content that goes hand-in-
-hand with the usage of YouTube reß ects upon a number of themes, ethics, limita-
tions, individual decision-making, to name a few. The focus, however, is threefold
and correlational. YouTube has been used for the communication of death and
dying since it was launched in 2005 (also see Mosco, 2004). Further, the informa-
tion that is communicated in the videos is commonly accompanied by music, an
element that usually acts as a third dimension in the visual screen, which is usu-
ally two-dimensional (Cohen, 1999). In order to gain further insight and expand
our understanding of how background music inß uences the experiences of the
viewers’ of videos with such content, it is only natural that we seek to understand
Þ rst the role that background music plays in that experience.
Prior to uploading information on YouTube people rely on everyday experien-
ces in the physical environment in order to familiarise themselves with issues or
concerns, or even learn new knowledge, skills or abilities. Death and dying are
one particular area, communicated via YouTube videos, that raises a number of
questions. Some cover issues such as how neutral is the information that is shared,
in terms of inß uence on the viewer? Why do individual users choose this medium
in order to communicate their loss, their feelings about the loss in question, or
even to have a memorial tribute via YouTube? Also, how do users choose the
piece of music that will accompany their videos and how does it affect the way
they will present their message? These are only a few of the questions that arise,
mostly referring to the user who is generating and uploading the content. What
about the viewers though? What are the important questions to ask in relation
to the viewer’s experience when watching YouTube videos related to death and
In this paper, the authors focus on background music accompanying the video
content, and the roles that plays in the experiences of the viewers’ when watching
death and dying related YouTube video content. In this account, the authors have
appreciated the touchy subject of the video content and are exploring its connec-
tion with music; whether it elicits emotions, enhances the experience and in what
way, or whether meaning-making, from a viewer’s point of view, changes accor-
ding to the music.
Background in Death Studies
Dearth of research in the area makes for a challenging question to answer.
Scholars have focused on death and the role of media (Christensen, & Sandvik,
2014), the impact of online platforms in grieving (Pentaris, 2014; Gibson 2007), and
the presence of death in the media (Field, & Walter 2003). Overlooking the binary
of private and public, Lange (2007) suggests that both exist in each other while the
mediation of a personal loss becomes public, and the public perception of the loss
becomes private.
According to Dorthe Christensen and Kjetil Sandvik (2014, p.1), ‘media enable
us to establish, maintain and develop reactions with the dead without being
Journal of Education Culture and Society No. 2_2015
present in the same space-time continuum. Media enable us to obtain a sense of
intimacy and co-presence while at the same time maintaining distance and co-
-absence. Media are materialities that allow us to communicate with the dead
or about the dead over the gaps between the world of the living and whatever
spatial and temporal sphere the dead may reside in without being absorbed into
these as ourselves’. It is in these terms that the communication of death and dying
via YouTube videos enables the living to reconnect or reminisce on the dead and
bridge gaps in their previous relational experiences. YouTube ‘offers an alterna-
tive culture of commemoration where private loss Þ nds articulation in video tri-
butes made in memory of loved ones…On YouTube…the commemoration is vir-
tual and the posted message not necessarily engraved forever…Web memorials
often represent cultural expressions affected by personal trauma (Wahlberg, 2009,
p.218). Gibson and Altena (2014) suggest, similarly, that YouTube is one of the
digital cases in which the deceased are commemorated; a digital culture for mour-
ning that is subjected to the amateur users who generate and upload material. It is
this particular form of mediation of death which lacks extensive evidence (Moser
& Dun, 2014) in order to comprehend better the role that complementary content,
such as background music is, has.
Background in Music Studies
The question asked with regard to the role of background music in various
cases is not new and although there have been numerous attempts at providing
an answer, there is still considerable space for further research focusing on spe-
ciÞ c topics. However, we can now understand the basic reasons for which music
is used as an accompanying element, either consciously or unconsciously, and
we can shape hypotheses and build on existing research towards a deeper com-
prehension of the subject. Music, in association with other content, has been stu-
died among others, as a source of emotion in Þ lms (Cohen, 2001; 2000), in relation
to rituals and ritualistic practice (Dissanayake, 2006), and as a means for mood
swings and emotion elicitation in itself (Garrido, & Schubert, 2011).
This particular study, as mentioned before, focuses on background music in
relation to the communication of death in YouTube videos. In an earlier paper,
the authors examined the subject based on existing research, and provided hypo-
theses which are now tested in the present study. In addition, this earlier paper
examined the subject thoroughly focusing on music’s ability to convey and elicit
emotions, and thus presented the musical aspect of these videos spherically, pre-
senting music in such videos from the creator’s view, as well as the receiver’s. For
the purposes of the present study, the authors now focus on the viewer’s point of
view: a great number of memorial video tributes make use of background music,
which has been chosen by the user who generated the content and uploaded the
video in an effort to express privately expressed feelings toward the loss (Pentaris,
& Yerosimou, 2014). These feelings are externalised to the public via background
music and viewers experience the elicitation of possibly similar emotions.
308 Expression
This is a pilot study looking to answer the research question ‘what is the role of
background music when watching YouTube videos associated with death, dying,
and bereavement’ while it gathers data in regard to how background music shapes
the experience of the viewer in general.
This is a quantitative study with qualitative aspects in it, namely participant
observation notes while collecting quantitative data (Bryman, 2012). Recruitment
of research participants was done by the snowball technique (Silverman, 2011).
An initial cover letter reached the potential participants and an initial meeting
with one of the researchers followed. During that meeting, participants had the
opportunity to ask any relevant questions and also sign off a consent form for
participation to the study.
Research participants watched three selected YouTube videos; one covering
bullying and suicide, one concerned with the death of a child, and one about a
celebrity death. The participants watched each video without background music
Þ rst and completed a questionnaire. Thereafter they watched the video with back-
ground music playing and were asked to Þ ll in the same questionnaire.
The pilot study engaged with ten participants in total. Six were men and four
were women. Four participants were in the age group of 26-35, and the rest were
36-45. All participants spoke English; four as native speakers and for six English
was a second language. The cohort of participants was far from hegemonic while
Þ ve were Þ rst generation migrants, and one second generation migrant.
The data were analysed using the statistical package for analysing and compa-
ring quantitative data, i.e. SPSS.
The results of this pilot study are described by video content while they also
concentrate on general Þ ndings, comparing emotional reactions to video content
based on the presence or not of background music while watching the video.
The data shows that when background music is playing while watching the
video, then the audience experiences greater emotional reaction rather than
without. Figure 1 depicts the level of emotional reaction with and without back-
ground music.
Research participants watched three different YouTube videos with various
content. Following are Figures 2, 3, and 4. These illustrate the level of emotio-
nal reactions of the participants based on background music. In detail, Þ gure
2 is concerned with a video covering a personal story of bullying and teenage
suicide. Participants experienced greater emotions when background music was
accompanying the video. Figure 3 shows results drawn from watching a memo-
rial video about a child. In this Þ gure for the emotional reaction was high even
without background music. This will be explored in the discussion, nonetheless it
is worth noting that this video contained scenes and messages that were powerful
to the individuals even without music. The major difference was that background
Journal of Education Culture and Society No. 2_2015
music caught further the attention of the research participants when watching.
Last, Þ gure 4 depicts the results from watching a memorial tribute to a celebrity
in the UK. Often, celebrity deaths and tributes to them are part of the discussion
about the communication of death in YouTube.
Fig. 1. Levels of emotional reaction based on background music.
Source: Own chart.
Fig. 2. Emotional reactions based on background music: bullying and suicide.
P1 P2 P3 P4 P5 P6 P7 P8 P9 P10
Source: Own chart.
310 Expression
Fig. 3. Emotional reactions based on background music: death of a child.
P1 P2 P3 P4 P5 P6 P7 P8 P9 P10
Source: Own chart.
Fig. 4. Emotional reactions based on background music: celebrity death.
P1 P2 P3 P4 P5 P6 P7 P8 P9 P10
Source: Own chart.
The research participants were asked to identify their felt emotions during
watching the videos, both with and without background music, and later rate the
level in which they had experienced them. The following table precisely depicts
the emotions that were experienced and identiÞ ed by the participants.
Journal of Education Culture and Society No. 2_2015
Table 1: Various felt emotions experienced during YouTube video watching.
Felt Emotion Without background music With background music
Anger 67% (6.7) 73% (7.3)
Amusement 17% (1.7) 27% (2.7)
Anxiety 57% (5.7) 67% (6.7)
Calm 82% (8.2) 54% (5.4)
Compassion 63% (6.3) 83% (8.3)
Confusion 40% (4) 40% (4)
Contempt 47% (4.7) 63% (6.3)
Disgust 60% (6) 63% (6.3)
Embarrassment 23% (2.3) 23% (2.3)
Empathy 48% (4.8) 77% (7.7)
Excitement 3% (0.3) 7% (0.7)
Fear 33% (3.3) 30% (3)
Guilt 13% (1.3) 10% (1)
Interest 39% (3.9) 63% (6.3)
Intimidation 30% (3) 20% (2)
Sadness 42% (4.2) 97% (9.7)
Shame 47% (4.7) 40% (4)
Shocked 57% (5.7) 63% (6.3)
Sympathy 50% (5) 90% (9)
Surprise 50% (5) 50% (5)
Source: Own table.
The table above highlights the comparison between the level of emotional reac-
tion when the background music was playing and when it was not. In detail, indi-
viduals appeared to experience higher levels of sympathy, shock, empathy, con-
tempt, compassion, and anger when the background music was accompanying
the video content. In particular, the interest of the participants raised by 24% when
the music was playing. Also, with the background music participants seemed to
experience higher levels of anxiety, by 10%, as opposed to being exposed to video
content without complementary introductory material.
Another signiÞ cant Þ nding from the results above is the feeling of being calm.
Research participants watching the video content without background music
appear to have experienced higher levels of being calm (82%). On the contrary,
background music appears to eliminate this feeling (54%). Also signiÞ cant is the
feeling of sadness. Research participants experienced great feelings of sadness
(97%) when watching the video content with background music on. However,
when the music was not playing, this feeling was diminished by 55%, a signiÞ cant
difference that supports the claim of eliciting emotions.
Figure 5 shows the emotions that were identiÞ ed and experienced while wat-
ching video content without background music. This Þ nding is a correlation
between the various video contents.
312 Expression
Fig. 5. Emotions experienced without background music.
Source: Own chart.
Similarly, Þ gure 6 illustrates the average level to which the identiÞ ed emotions
were experienced during video viewing with background music. The two Þ gu-
res (5 & 6) depict the signiÞ cant difference that background music makes when
death is communicated via the YouTube platform. What is also worth highligh-
ting here is that different emotions are elicited differently for each category (with
or without background music). This, as it will be discussed later, supports further
the conversation about generating emotions with supplementary to the video con-
tent material.
Fig. 6. Emotions experienced with background music.
Source: Own chart.
Research participants were asked to indicate how pleasant or not the video
content was for them. The following graph illustrates the responses on an average
scale. Generally, research participants suggested that the content had been unple-
asant regardless of background music. Nonetheless, Þ ndings show that when the
background music was also playing, the video content was more unpleasant than
Journal of Education Culture and Society No. 2_2015
Fig. 7. How pleasant was the video content?
With background
background music
Source: Own chart.
Research participants were also asked to state how engaged or ot they have felt
throughout the duration of it. Figure 8 shows that when participants watched the
videos with background music, they were engaged more with the content.
Fig. 8. How engaged were you with the video content?
With background
background music
Source: Own chart.
It is evident from the results that research participants experienced higher levels
of emotional reaction to the video content when that was accompanied by backgro-
und music. This is paramount in the conversation concerning the functional roles
of music, not merely in videos but across a vast array of public and private spaces,
whether physical or not. Nonetheless, this study has been concerned with the role of
background music when communicating death via YouTube videos.
314 Expression
Evidence shows that the video content is far from neutral in this occasion. Video
sharing on YouTube highlights user-generated content. Therefore, the user has the
choice to decide what elements will accompany the video content, i.e. background
music. This process is the beginning of making a private experience of dying or
grieving open to the public across the globe. Nevertheless, making it public does
not necessarily mean that the public will have the luxury to shape their percep-
tion around the experience based on their own, neutral from inß uence, judgement
(Pentaris, & Yerosimou, 2014). The results here show that individuals will expe-
rience the video content based on background music. The latter not only enhances
previously observed emotions, but it also elicits and generates new emotions that
are the result of the music in correlation to the content and not the content per se.
In order to specify when and how background music plays a bigger role, it is
important to discuss emotional reactions by each video content. Following, we
discuss the three main video content areas that research participants were expo-
sed to for the purposes of this pilot study.
Bullying and suicide
Emotional reaction when watching the video content with background music
is rather intense with a number of emotions, i.e. fear, anxiety, compassion, being
predominant in the viewer’s experience. This Þ nding is signiÞ cant when looked
at in comparison to the levels of emotional reaction that the video content causes
without the background music.
Bullying and suicide are very touchy subjects. However, the viewer of a
YouTube video that conveys feelings of grief and loss will not necessarily connect
to the content unless there are links with his or her past experiences. If the latter is
not the case, then the video content appears to be perceived in a factual, not enga-
ging manner. When background music is added the viewers are generally more
engaged with the content while they experience intense emotions that, if they did
before, they were to a minimum degree.
Background music in this video content category, also eliminates how pleasant
the viewer feels during watching the video. Findings suggest that research parti-
cipants felt more comfortable and pleasant when watching a video without audio.
On the contrary, when the music was playing in the background, this made parti-
cipants feel unease and intimidated, as well as sad.
Death of a child
In this category of video content, and in both occasions, i.e. watching the video
with and without background music playing, research participants experienced high
degree of emotional reactions. Nonetheless, background music affected the expe-
rience of the viewers who experienced higher levels of sadness, compassion, anxiety,
anger, empathy, interest, shock, and sympathy. In other words, the Þ ndings show that
watching a video which acts as a memorial tribute to a child that is deceased, is upset-
ting in itself. However, background music adds to the feelings of anxiety, as well as
the ones mentioned above, for the viewers, and it challenges them by increasing fear
toward the loss of one’s own child, according to the Þ ndings of this study.
Journal of Education Culture and Society No. 2_2015
Similar to bullying and suicide, background music appears to act as a driving
force in the experience of the viewer. It also sets out the context in which the viewer
will perceive and comprehend the content of the video. Otherwise, background
music may as well be considered as a special physicality in which life experiences
occur. Commonly the songs and/or melodies that are chosen for YouTube videos
that communicate similar content either have lyrics that are near the idea of loss
and love, or function as a calming force toward allowing the viewer to become
more available to be affected by the content.
Celebrity deaths
The communication of celebrity deaths, as well the dissemination of numerous
memorial video tributes on YouTube is widely common. Findings of this study
demonstrate that once again the viewers experienced a high degree of emotio-
nal reactions, namely empathy, anger, calmness, compassion, confusion, sadness,
sympathy and shock, when the background music was on.
Similar to the earlier discussion, viewers felt signiÞ cantly more engaged with
the video content when the music was on while in the case of a celebrity death
there were also feelings of interest and contempt experienced. Contempt seems
relevant to this category because the deceased had been known to the public befo-
rehand, and the viewers might already have shaped an opinion that associates
with the deceased and their lifestyle when in life.
Functional roles of background music
when communicating death via YouTube videos
Findings show that viewers experience different emotions differently, all accor-
ding to the background music that adorns the video content. Previous research in
background music suggests that music is another means for communicating infor-
mation. According to Annabelle Cohen (1999, p.6): “Music is a vehicle transporting
a variety of information that serve various multimedia goals. The brain selects what
is useful. A prime example of this is the role that emotional meaning from music
provided to a visual narrative while sounds of the music are of secondary concern”.
Cohen (1999, pp.1-5) suggests that music serves at least eight different func-
tions; ‘it masks distraction, provides continuity, directs attention, induces mood,
communicates meaning, cues memory, heightens arousal and suspends disbelief
and adds an aesthetic dimension’. The following taxonomy of the functional roles
of background music in the communication of death via YouTube videos accords
with Cohen’s suggestion.
While Cohen (1999, pp.1-5.) focuses speciÞ cally on Þ lm music, we are dra-
wing from empirical research that associates death communication and online
platforms. That said, background music appears to draw attention, induce moods
and elicit emotions, complement meaning-making process, increases anxiety, and
complements engagement with the primary information. Following, we discuss
each category in relation to the Þ ndings.
316 Expression
Drawing attention
According to the Þ ndings of this study, background music acts as a force for
increasing the viewer’s interest in the video content, or draw general attention to
the content. Data shows that research participants’ attention and interest incre-
ased due to the background music, which also provided a structure and a sequ-
ence in terms of time, keeping their attention to the video and providing a tempo-
ral arrangement.
Inducing moods and eliciting negative emotions
Background music appears to have intense inß uence on the experiences of the
viewers’ when watching YouTube videos that relate to death and dying. In parti-
cular, background music induces moods in the viewer as those have been deÞ ned
by Gardner (1985); temporary states that do not directly link to particular beha-
viour. It is evident that without background music the experience of the viewer is
rather different, with less intense feelings and the absence of moods such as sad-
ness or shock. According to Clark and Isen (1982), feeling states are general states
and they do not inß uence on-going behaviour. On the contrary, they act as mood
switches to the viewer who is holistically affected by them.
Further, background music enhances the experience of making meanings of
death and dying when watching YouTube videos with relevant content by elici-
ting negative emotions, according to the selection of the music. Those include sad-
ness, empathy, sympathy, compassion, shock, anxiety and anger. With this intent,
music usually has a slow tempo, falling contour, low pitch and the minor mode,
characteristics associated with conveying sadness (Levi 1985 in Cohen 2000; also
Trehub, Cohen, & Guerriero 1985 in Cohen 2000). In this case, death, dying, and
bereavement when communicated via YouTube videos, provide an open space
for connection with a subject that the viewer may have not experienced in real life.
Nevertheless, YouTube provides the opportunity for familiarisation with it from
a distance that can safeguard the individual (Pentaris, & Yerosimou 2014). The
elicitation of emotions is paramount when considering how background music
inß uences the viewing of similar video content while it stresses Lange’s (2007)
thesis about publicly private and privately public. In other words, the background
music that accompanies the content about death and dying has been chosen by the
user who generated the content. This choice is personal and can only be perceived
via online freedom and the perception that the user-generator decides what and
why. The latter comes to the viewer’s consciousness only after having experienced
the elicitation of their emotions during watching the uploaded video.
Complementing meaning-making process
YouTube videos are incomplete without an audience. They are uploaded and
shared for the public to have access to and interact with them. Two types of interaction
are identiÞ ed in this experience; internal interaction and external interaction. External
interaction with a particular video or parts of the video would be to leave a comment,
like or dislike the video. On the other hand, internal interaction refers to reactions to the
video content but without openly admitting to it or communicating it to the public.
Journal of Education Culture and Society No. 2_2015
Regardless, each type of interaction involves a meaning-making process. Vie-
wers not only view the content but they also engage with it. Background music
increases the degree of engagement while it sketches ways in which the viewer
makes meaning of what is viewed. According to Sirius and Clarke (1994, in Cohen
2000), the meaning of a simple moving geometric Þ gure can be altered according
to the background music. In other words, background music highly contributes
to how the viewer will perceive, understand, and comprehend the video content.
For example, the death of a child has a signiÞ cant effect on viewers as it elicits
emotions of sadness, sympathy and anger. When the same content is presented
with background music the viewer’s experience is enhanced; negative emotions
dominate, anxiety is increased and the meaning they make of the loss of a child
and possibly how a parent experiences it , is shaped by the music; if not shaped,
coloured and intensiÞ ed.
Increasing anxiety
Carol Smith and Larry Morris (1977) have concluded that background music
increases anxiety more than it induces calmness. However, this category is depen-
dent on the context in which background music is played. Other research has
shown (Bolwerk, 1990; Davis, & Thaut 1989) that music in general acts as a force
toward relaxation, especially with anxiety patients (Li et al., 2012). Nevertheless,
this study has focused on background music in a speciÞ c context. That said, the
content of the video, i.e. death, dying, and bereavement related, already sets the
mood while the background music shapes the experience toward the general emo-
tions that death and dying related subjects elicit. Therefore, background music
here has the role of increasing anxiety rather than enhancing calmness. Individual
viewers feel more upset and at unease when the video content that is indolent and
depressive often coincides with background music chosen speciÞ cally to accom-
pany and highlight this particular content.
Enhancing engagement
Background music in YouTube videos that communicate death, dying, and
bereavement is also found to enhance the degree of engagement of the viewer
with the video and its content. This is tightly connected with the aforementioned
functions of music concerning the elicitation of emotions. Background music eli-
cits emotions and creates a connection between the viewer and the content of the
video, which when watched on its own does not present high levels of emotional
reaction. Hence, the content of the video becomes personal, and thus, the engage-
ment of the viewer is increased.
In addition, the engagement of the viewers is enhanced by the ability of music
to provide continuity. Most of the memorial videos on YouTube are formed by
a sequence of photos with the addition, in some cases, of short video clips, all
put together in the form of slide shows. Since there is no ‘dramatic’ sequence, it
is difÞ cult for the viewers to be focused and concentrated without any time cue.
Background music provides that cue which creates a structure, and it also ‘binds’
the pictures and videos together in a holistic result.
318 Expression
This study is the pilot to a larger study that the authors are currently under-
taking. These preliminary results help us to understand the roles of background
music in communicating death, dying, and bereavement via YouTube videos.
This is paramount and adds to the dialogue about online platforms and the com-
munication of death, dying and bereavement via media and communication
technologies. It also contributes to the conversation in regard to how background
music inß uences and shapes the experiences of the audience when used in order
to complement primary content presented to the public.
This study has shown that background music in videos with content that rela-
tes to death, dying, and bereavement acts as an active inß uencer to the overall
experience while it draws the attention of the viewer, it induces moods and elicits
emotions, it complements the meaning-making process, it increases anxiety, and
it enhances engagement of the viewer with the video content.
Further, it is suggested in this study that further research is necessary in order
to understand better how background music inß uences the perceptions of the vie-
wers about death and dying, and therefore, how that impacts on the communica-
tion of death via media and communication technologies.
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