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Raucous Music May Tap Into Your Inner Animal

By Randy Dotinga
HealthDay Reporter

WEDNESDAY, June 13 (HealthDay News) -- Harsh, jarring music -- a mainstay of rock-and-roll, movie soundtracks and many garage bands -- appears to stimulate your mind by simulating the sounds of animals in distress, a new study claims.

The research doesn't directly prove that the distortion in a song such as Jimi Hendrix's "Star Spangled Banner" makes you subconsciously think about the screams of other mammals. However, study author Daniel Blumstein said "it gives us the biological basis behind why certain forms of music create emotions. What's so nice about this is that they're inspired by biological forces, by 3.5 billion years of life."

Blumstein, chair of the ecology and evolutionary biology department at the University of California, Los Angeles, and colleagues are studying how the distress sounds of mammals and birds command attention. It appears that they "overblow" their vocal systems, Blumstein said, creating distortion similar to what you hear if you turn your stereo volume up too high.

The researchers sought to better understand how people react to distortions in music. With the help of Greg Bryant, an assistant professor of communication studies at UCLA, musician and recording engineer, they created 10-second snippets of music. Some were bland -- "Muzak-y," Blumstein said -- and others transformed after five seconds into harsh, rough music.

The idea was to create discordant sounds evocative of those made by animals in distress. "We're not increasing the tempo, we're not increasing the amplitude, we're not changing keys," Blumstein said. "We're adding noise, something that would be naturally produced. We're creating biologically inspired music."

Forty-two UCLA undergrads who heard the snippets that included the rougher music found them more stimulating than the other music.

However, a second group of students was less aroused if they watched innocuous videos while they listened to the musical selections. "Music alone seems to be able to manipulate arousal ... but in our experiments, the addition of video suppressed these arousing responses," Blumstein said. In other words, context influences the listener's feelings.

Daniel Levitin, a professor of psychology and behavioral neuroscience at McGill University in Montreal, said the findings fit in with theories that distorted sounds grab attention because they mimic sounds of distress.

Also, these sounds can be loud, and "our brain interprets loud sounds that are very near us as potentially dangerous, triggering the well-known 'startle' response we have if, say, a balloon pops nearby," he said. "This is an ancient reflex that we share with all mammals, occurring deep in the brain stem," added Levitin, author of This Is Your Brain on Music.

Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, a professor of business psychology at University College London, said the study is valid and serves as "a very preliminary exploration of the potential evolutionary basis of musical preferences. The main message is that distorted music may tap into evolved biological processes or systems in our brain which have the capacity to perceive danger even before we are conscious of it."

But it doesn't have applications in everyday life, he said.

Just what is the appeal of jarring music? "My experience and studies suggest that liking distorted music is a function of being more creative and open to novelty," he said.

One of the next steps in research, study author Blumstein said, is to figure out how emotionally charged video -- like that in a horror movie -- affects people's response to the sounds of distortion.

The study was published online June 12 in the journal Biology Letters.

More information

Music therapy can help people in distress. For more, see the American Music Therapy Association.

SOURCES: Daniel T. Blumstein, Ph.D., professor and chair, department of ecology and evolutionary biology, University of California, Los Angeles; Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, Ph.D., professor, business psychology, University College London, England; Daniel J. Levitin, Ph.D., professor, psychology and behavioral neuroscience, McGill University, Montreal; June 12, 2012, Biology Letters, online

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