Rock music ‘brings out the animal in us’ through jarring sounds

By Chelsea Whyte on June 13, 2012 5:16 PM EDT

Jimi Hendrix large
Jimi Hendrix's dissonant music strikes a chord with the animal in us. (Photo: Creative Commons)

Crouched in your seat in a darkened movie theater, your pulse racing at the scary movie on screen, you may think it's the images that are frightening, but a new study shows that dissonant music is the thing that gets your blood pumping.  

"Composers have intuitive knowledge of what sounds scary without knowing why," said study author Greg Bryant, an assistant professor of communication studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. "What they usually don't realize is that they're exploiting our evolved predispositions to get excited and have negative emotions when hearing certain sounds."

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The same goes for jarring or discordant sounds in rock music. Take Jimi Hendrix's rendition of the Star Spangled Banner, for instance. The distorted version of those notes cause shivers down the spine because humans are programmed to respond to harsh noise, say researchers at UCLA.

Using synthesizers, the researchers worked with Peter Kaye, a composer of movie and television scores, to create several original 10-second-long pieces to use in an experiment with listeners who were asked to rate the pieces based on how arousing they found the music and whether the emotional feeling of the score was positive or negative.

"We're not increasing the tempo, we're not increasing the amplitude, we're not changing keys," said Daniel Blumstein, one of the study's authors and chair of the UCLA Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, according to U.S. News & World Report. "We're adding noise, something that would be naturally produced. We're creating biologically inspired music."

Generic elevator-type music without abrupt transitions in frequency or pitch was used as a control, in addition to easy listening music which suddenly broke into distortion, much like Hendrix's famed Woodstock performance of the national anthem.

When the music featured distortion, listeners rated it much more arousing and said it was charged with negative emotion.

"Music that shares aural characteristics with the vocalizations of distressed animals captures human attention and is uniquely arousing," Blumstein said.

The researchers believe the effect of listening to this type of music mimics the distress calls of animals in nature, which are distorted as animals rapidly force a large amount of air through their voice boxes. It appears that they "overblow" their vocal systems, Blumstein told U.S. News & World Report, creating distortion similar to what you hear if you turn your stereo volume up too high.  One of the best known examples is the "scream" of a rabbit facing death, said Bryant, according to The Evening Herald.

"This study helps explain why the distortion of rock 'n' roll gets people excited: It brings out the animal in us," said Bryant.

While distorted music may tap into our biological danger sensors, the researchers found that if people watched boring videos - showing someone walking or drinking coffee - along with the dissonant sounds, they found the music less exciting.

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