When you hear a dissonant sound, you respond: you become excited. And scientists think it’s because dissonance an alarm call.
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.
In this weeks Biology of Letters, Daniel Blumstein, professor and chairman of UCLA’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, said he got onto the topic by “listening to my inner marmot”. Blumstein, who studies marmot behavior and communication, said that when he removed baby marmots from their mothers, they’d elicit “these terrible, horrible screams”, which got him thinking about dissonance and nonlinearities in sound – like when a musician plugs a guitar into an amp and turns it up to eleven.
After giving a lecture about animal calls, Blumstein was approached by a graduate student who noted that filmmakers have capitalized on this for decades, putting dissonant music into scores when something exciting or terrible is about to happen.
Blumstein and Kaye teamed up with Greg Bryant, a cognitive psychologist in UCLA’s communications department and the Center for Behavior, Evolution and Culture. Bryant, who is also a musician, created 10-second snippets of music. One sample was just a harmonious, constant ditty. The other, became dissonant and distorted halfway into the music.
They then played the tunes for students and found that students who listened to the “control” song rated themselves as unaroused and nonemotional. Those who listened to the dissonant music said they were aroused and maybe sad or fearful. Then, to see if visual images would have an effect, they showed students a film that tracked with the sound. At five seconds into the film, an action took place, albeit a nonexciting one – such as someone drinking a glass of water or flipping a newspaper page.
Surprisingly, the researchers found that students who listened to the dissonant clip while watching did not rate themselves as aroused. “It’s probably all about context,” Bryant said. “They were watching something boring and benign, totally not evocative. Then the noise kicks in, and people don’t react because of the negatively benign visual context.” However, those who watched the film and heard the dissonant movie still had negative valence – they still seemed sadder or more fearful than those who listened to the control music.
Blumstein and Bryant say this is the first study to really look at the functionality of dissonant music – why we like it, are attracted to it or aroused by it – as opposed to the physics of the sound, or how to make the sound. And they’re starting a new project in which they will start to measure people’s physiological response to music.
“Some music really just speaks to the animal in us,” Bryant said.
- The sound of arousal in music is context-dependent by Daniel T. Blumstein, Gregory A. Bryant, and Peter Kaye, June 13, 2012, doi: 10.1098/rsbl.2012.0374
- Dissonant music brings out the animal in listeners, by Meg Sullivan, June 12, 2012.
- Dissonant sounds strike chord with animal in you, study says by Susanne Rust, June 14, 2012.