new study in Biology Letters is being described as establishing that the distorted sound of rock music gets people excited because "it brings out the animal in us," in the words of one of the authors, Greg Bryant, an assistant professor of communication studies at UCLA.
Undergraduates listened to two brief musical clips (composed and
performed on synthesizer by Bryant and co-author Peter Kaye) and rated how
they found the music and whether the emotional feeling in the music was
positive (such as happy) or negative (such as fear-inducing or sad).
One of these clips, the "distortion condition," begins identically to the "control condition" but then abruptly adds the harsh "fuzzy" tone made famous by "overdriven" guitar amplifiers and fuzzboxes from Link Wray and Jimi Hendrix to Jack White. According to a press release from UCLA, the researchers "believe the effect of listening to music with distortion
is similar to hearing the cries of animals in distress, a condition
that distorts animals' voices by forcing a large amount of air rapidly
through the voice box."
"Music that shares aural characteristics with the vocalizations of distressed animals captures human attention and is uniquely arousing," said Daniel Blumstein, a third study author and chair of the UCLA Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.
I haven't seen the full study, but my first question is whether we couldn't save several millions years of evolution and examine how some music shares aural characteristics with the vocalizations of distressed human infants. There are well-established links between infant health, the acoustical characteristics of infant cries, and caregivers' attention to and perception of those cries.
It appears that one of the characteristics perceived as more distressing, urgent, and arousing in a cry is its degree of dysphonation, or inharmonic vibration of the vocal folds that is experienced as noise. In acoustics, a sound is inharmonic to the degree that it contains overtones or harmonics the frequencies of which depart from whole-number multiples of the fundamental frequency, the perceived pitch. Many of the "gritty" or "dirty" timbres in contemporary music are achieved by technologically generating sound waves with high-amplitude odd harmonics.
It could be true that distorted musical tones have features in common with animal distress cries but also true--and more explanatorily relevant--that distorted musical tones have features in common with infant distress cries.
Unless you assume that marmots are more rock 'n roll than kids.