According to researchers at the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA), it would appear that the music which is most capable of triggering an emotional response does so by using jarring and distorted sounds that replicate the properties of distress calls that animals release when they are in danger.
Investigators say that this applies to a large number of very famous performances by great artists, including Jimi Hendrix's 1969 rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” In fact, the team used this song as part of their study.
They wanted to know how this type of distorted music can be so evocative, and so likely to reach people's souls. The reason that it is so arousing, the researchers found, is because it replicates natural distress calls, which set human emotions on edge.
“Music that shares aural characteristics with the vocalizations of distressed animals captures human attention and is uniquely arousing,” says study author and chair of the UCLA Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, expert Daniel Blumstein.
Details of the new study were published online, in the June 12 issue of the peer-reviewed, scientific journal Biology Letters. Blumstein, a renowned expert on animal distress calls, is known for a study he conducted in 2010, covering the soundtrack of 102 classic movies.
The research covered four genres – adventure, horror, drama and war. Each of the four types of soundtracks was found to display its characteristic emotion-manipulating techniques, which ensured that the film transmitted the intended feeling to its audience.
“We wanted to see if we could enhance or suppress the listener's feelings based on what's going on with the music,” Blumstein says of the new experiments. He and his team composed a series of 10-second audio clips from scratch, and had test subjects listen to them.
Each participant had to rate the short songs based on how arousing the music was. They also had to explain if they found it emotionally moving, and if they interpreted it as positive or negative. Distorted music was the most likely to be described as featuring negative emotions.
“This study helps explain why the distortion of rock 'n' roll gets people excited: It brings out the animal in us,” UCLA assistant professor of communication studies, Greg Bryant, explains.
“Composers have intuitive knowledge of what sounds scary without knowing why. 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,” he concludes.