On relaxed screenings: neurodivergence and sound at the cinema

How loudness and sensitivity to sound and music can affect the cinematic experience for neurodivergent audiences.

1 August 2023

By Lillian Crawford

Fantasia (1940) © Disney

“The music begins to suggest other things to your imagination. They might be, oh, just masses of colour. Or they may be cloud forms or great landscapes or vague shadows or geometrical objects floating in space.” 

What the host, Deems Taylor, describes at the beginning of Walt Disney’s 1940 ‘concert feature’ Fantasia is synaesthesia – a phenomenon in which one form of sensory stimulation triggers another. It is an experience typical to neurodivergent people, and often manifests itself as Taylor describes: that what we hear becomes something altogether different to pure sound.

Fantasia is an example of how being synaesthetic can be a positive experience. Being sat in a concert hall, one might see figures, shapes and colours appearing in the mind’s eye. At the start of the film, as the musicians tune up on a soundstage, their instruments alight with orange, green, pink and yellow light. 

Later in the film, Taylor introduces the audience to a figure he calls ‘The Sound Track’, which appears on the screen as a vertical, white line that embodies the musical characters of different instruments, à la Benjamin Britten’s The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. For some, these images are only made visible by the film’s animators. For others, they appear before us involuntarily.

Neurodivergent relationships to sound and music are often the result of heightened levels of sensory processing sensitivity (SPS). In the 1990s, the psychologist Elaine Aron and her husband Arthur Aron developed the SPS framework to explain why some people have increased reactivity, both positive and negative, to physical, social and emotional stimuli – described as a highly sensitive person (HSP). The symptoms of being an HSP are related to our depth of processing, needing to take time to perceive and process external and internal input such as sound, light, feelings and information. 

The Arons estimated that this categorisation accounted for about 15 to 20 percent of people. In cinematic terms, this means that up to a fifth of audiences are likely to find that the industry standard cinema volume level of Dolby 7, or 85 decibels, is too loud. As forms of surround sound have developed in the history of film exhibition, the aim has been to create a cinematic experience in which film audio is played at the maximum legal level from as many output sources as possible around the cinematic space. 

Fantasia (1940)

If you are sensitive to sound, this can be an extremely distressing environment. One of the key guidelines for hosting what many UK cinemas now call ‘relaxed screenings’ is to lower the sound level in the cinematic space. The difficulty that this poses is to the varying content of the film being shown, and the nature of its sound mixing. For example, a film might have a very loud and intense action sequence, followed by a quiet domestic scene – this therefore requires the sound levels to be controlled as one would at home using the volume buttons on a remote control. Many people, neurodivergent or neurotypical, adjust their personal sound levels in a cinema using earplugs or headphones to muffle what they hear.

Of course, there are also different types of sound. Some noises are violent, sudden and atonal, which often prompt distress and overwhelming sensory negativity – this is why relaxed environment guidelines often encourage venues to turn off electric hand dryers, for example, or request that audiences do not burst into applause. However, other types of sounds, especially music, can have a powerful positive impact on neurodivergent people. In the Arons’ Highly Sensitive Person Scale (HSPS) questionnaire both “I am made uncomfortable by loud noises” and “I am deeply moved by the arts or music” are likely to be true of an HSP. Being attuned to these different sonic landscapes is vital in preparing a film to be exhibited at one of these types of screening.

A lot of neurodivergent people also show symptoms of misophonia, which typically displays itself as visceral irritation triggered by noises such as people chewing food. This can also render the cinematic environment an unfriendly space for many, meaning that it is important for programmers to consider whether items such as food or drink should be permitted in screening rooms. 

The distress caused by loud noise or misophonia can, for many, be alleviated by music, in much the same way as dissonance can be resolved. Where a scene in a restaurant or other busy environment can be much too loud, the same volume of classical music might be completely non-distressing, even pleasant. Indeed, many neurodivergent people play loud music through headphones to drown out or ‘resolve’ the general hubbub of real life. Think of the final sequence of Fantasia, in which Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain, with its raucous satanic stomping, gives way to the divine melody of Schubert’s Ave Maria – it is like darkness being enveloped by the light.

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)

This is why music therapy is a popular and effective practice for a lot of autistic people, as rhythms and melodies can have regulatory effects that aid communication and self-expression. In the 2016 documentary Life, Animated, the autistic man Owen Suskind is described by his parents as having developed his ability to speak from repeating sounds and phrases from Disney films, a form of communication called echolalia. 

The challenge we face in programming relaxed screenings on these principles is the diversity and unpredictability of response we might get from an audience. Last year, as part of our regular series of relaxed screenings at BFI Southbank, we screened Jacques Demy’s 1964 film The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, a sung-through musical in French. While some audiences found the lack of spoken dialogue soothing and pleasurable, others found the omnipresence of emotional music too intense. 

The same concern surrounds screening a film like Fantasia, which for some will be a perfect choice through its prominent use of classical music, while for others this will be too much. This is why varied programming is of utmost importance, and why it’s crucial to consider the content of the films themselves rather than applying a catch-all reduction in sound levels. Above all, it’s essential to keep listening to the audience.

Relaxed screenings are presented each month at BFI Southbank for those in the neurodiverse community, their assistants and carers.

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