ScienceDaily (June 12, 2012) — Ever wonder why Jimi Hendrix’s rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” moved so many people in 1969 or why the music in the shower scene of “Psycho” still sends chills down your spine?
A UCLA-based team of researchers has isolated some of the ways in which distorted and jarring music is so evocative, and they believe that the mechanisms are closely related to distress calls in animals.
“Music that shares aural characteristics with the vocalizations of distressed animals captures human attention and is uniquely arousing,”
a team of researchers captured media attention with a study of the soundtracks of 102 classic movies in four genres: adventure, drama, horror and war. They determined that the soundtracks for each genre possessed characteristic emotion-manipulating techniques. Scores for dramatic films, for example, had more abrupt shifts in frequency, both up and down. Horror films, on the other hand, had more screaming females and distorted sounds. The researchers were even able to detect recordings of animal screams in some scores.
When the music featured distortion, subjects rated it as more exciting than the compositions without distortion. They also were more likely to describe the music as charged with negative emotion.
The researchers believe the effect of listening to music with distortion is similar to hearing the cries of animals in distress, a condition that distorts animals’ voices by forcing a large amount of air rapidly through the voice box.
“This study helps explain why the distortion of rock ‘n’ roll gets people excited: It brings out the animal in us,”
“Composers have intuitive knowledge of what sounds scary without knowing why,” Bryant said. “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.”
Most of the effects, however, are undermined if the music is paired with unevocative imagery, the researchers found.
. Past research has shown that calls of distress raise heart rates and skin conductance among animals.
“We need to study this more to understand the physiological mechanisms by which this works,” Kaye said.