Why dissonant music can strike an emotional chord

Scientists suggest distortions make rock melodies sound like distress calls 


  Gil Aegerter  /  msnbc.com

A young yellow-bellied marmot opens its mouth while on the edge of a cliff at Palouse Falls State Park in southeastern Washington. Studies of marmot screams led scientists to look into the emotional effect of dissonance in music.
 The Screaming Marmots aren't a rock band, but shrieks of the large rodents are telling scientists something about the animal nature of some music.

Daniel Blumstein, a biologist at the University of California at Los Angeles, studies marmots, a group that includes groundhogs, and he noticed something interesting about their cries.

"The pups sometimes scream when we capture them," said Blumstein, professor and chairman of UCLA's department of ecology and evolutionary biology. "These cries are very different than other vocalizations, like the alarm calls, we've studied."

Now he and colleagues have found evidence that human listeners can be aroused by the characteristics of music that resemble animals' distress calls.

"When we hear music, a lot of the mechanisms in our brain that are helping us understand it are probably originally designed to perceive emotions in voices, so music sort of fulfills that role of being an emotional voice," said study researcher Gregory Bryant, an assistant professor of communication at UCLA.

Bryant and Peter Kaye, a musician at Kingston University in Surrey, England, composed 12 brief clips of otherwise benign-sounding music that incorporated the unpredictable, or nonlinear, characteristics of animal cries. These included sudden shifts in pitch and distortion, similar to the guitar effects common in rock music.

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