Researchers from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) have identified some of the different ways in which distorted and jarring music is able to evoke deep-seated emotional responses from listeners. The report, published in the journal Biology Letters
, suggests that music which shares characteristics with distress calls from the animal kingdom, is uniquely effective at capturing the attention of human beings.
Professor Daniel Blumenstein, one of the study’s authors and chair of UCLA’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, designed and conducted a series of experiments along with his UCLA colleague Professor Greg Bryant and the Santa Monica-based composer of movie and television scores Peter Kaye.
Bryant and Professor Kaye used synthesisers to create a selection of original music compositions that conformed to one of several types or ‘conditions’. The pieces, which were each 10 seconds in length, were played to a group of undergraduate students in order to ascertain whether or not particular music types were capable of enhancing or suppressing listeners’ feelings. In a control condition, the music played was generic and emotionally neutral. In another condition, music began in the manner of ‘easy-listening’ before breaking out into distortion. The students were asked to listen to each condition and to rate the example based on how arousing they found the music, and on whether the emotional feeling in the music was positive or negative. No subject was played more than one example from any of the conditions.
When an example featured distortion, the students rated the piece as more exciting than compositions without distortion, and they were more likely to identify the piece as having a negative feeling. The researchers contend that listening to jarring or distorted music is akin to hearing the distress calls of animals, during which creatures’ voices are distorted by the large amount of air forced through their voice boxes.
"This study helps explain why the distortion of rock 'n' roll gets people excited: It brings out the animal in us," explained Bryant. "Composers have intuitive knowledge of what sounds scary without knowing why. What they usually don’t realise is that they’re exploiting our evolved predispositions to get excited and have negative emotions when hearing certain sounds."
The team found that the effects of dissonant music can be to some extent placated by the presence of unevocative imagery. In a second study, the same compositions were paired with video clips of equal length. The clips, which included scenes such as a person sipping coffee, were designed to be minimally evocative. These audiovisual pairings were then presented to a different set of students. Whilst the second group did not find the music arousing, they did view the pieces more negatively than when they were not paired with the videos.
The new findings build upon the results of a 2010 study, in which Professor Blumstein and colleagues studied the scores of 102 classic movies from the genres of adventure, drama, horror and war. The team discovered that the soundtracks of each genre possessed particular characteristics designed to manipulate human emotions. The scores of some horror films, for example, included the sounds of distressed women and the screams of animals were identified within other soundtracks.
The researchers now plan to investigate the ways in which different types of music affect the nervous systems of their listeners. Previous studies have demonstrated the ability of distress calls to raise the heart rates and skin conductance of animals.
"We need to study this more to understand the psychological mechanisms by which this works," concluded Professor Kaye.