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.


They report their findings in the latest issue of the peer-reviewed scientific journal Biology Letters, which publishes online June 12.


"Music that shares aural characteristics with the vocalizations of distressed animals captures human attention and is uniquely arousing," said Daniel Blumstein, one of the study's authors and chair of the UCLA Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.


Blumstein is an authority on animal distress calls, particularly among marmots. In 2010, he and 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.


The latest findings are based on a series of experiments that Blumstein designed and conducted with Peter Kaye, a Santa Monica–based composer of movie and television scores, and Greg Bryant, an assistant professor of communication studies at UCLA who specializes in research on vocal communication and evolutionary psychology. In addition to being an academic, Bryant is a musician and recording engineer.


Using synthesizers, Kaye and Bryant composed a series of original music pieces of several types or "conditions," with each piece lasting just 10 seconds. "We wanted to see if we could enhance or suppress the listener's feelings based on what's going on with the music," Blumstein said.


In the control condition, the music was generic and emotionally neutral, without noise or abrupt transitions in frequency or pitch. Bryant likened it to rather plain elevator music.


Another condition began in an easy-listening manner but then suddenly broke into distortion, much like Hendrix famously did at Woodstock.


An example of the control condition; an example of the distortion condition.


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Original citation: Blumstein, D.T., Bryant, G.A., P. Kaye (2012). The sound of arousal is context dependent. Biology Letters doi: 10.1098/rsbl.2012.0374