Why did the squeal of Jimi Hendrix's guitar cause girls to practically claw their way onstage? Why does the Psycho-like intro to Tyler the Creator's “Yonkers” inspire moshing? Why do furry-booted dubheads turn into a writhing mass during Skrillex's drops?
Researchers working at UCLA think they've determined why humans respond so strongly to this stimulus. It's because dissonance in music mimics distress cries in wild animals, which summons strong reactions. In other words, these artists literally bring out the animal in us.
The team studying this is made up of the university's Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology chair, Daniel Blumstein, a movie and film composer, Peter Kaye, and an evolutionary psychologist who also is a musician, Greg Bryant.
Two years ago, Blumstein published another study on how movie soundtracks emotionally manipulate viewers. Focusing on the adventure, drama, horror and war genres, his team isolated certain tactics that attempt to elicit distinct emotions. Horror film scores include warped sound and screams — on occasion, even animal shrieks were added to the blend.
As Blumstein notes, “Music that shares aural characteristics with the vocalizations of distressed animals captures human attention and is uniquely arousing.”
This time, his team composed 10-second clips of original music. The control contained pleasant music with no abrasive changes, like what you hear when you're in the dentist's chair. The test clip began the same way, but midway through, suddenly crumbled into distortion (think Hendrix's “Star-Spangled Banner”). Students found the clip with the dissonance both more thrilling and more imbued with negativity.
So how does that relate to animals vocalizing pain? Researchers say animals express suffering by involuntarily forcing lots of air quickly through their throats, which warps the sound that comes through their voice boxes. The resulting sound, the team says, is very similar to high-pitched, dissonant music.
The eeriest part? Skrillex probably knows what the hell he's doing, even if he might not be able to articulate it. “Composers have intuitive knowledge of what sounds scary without knowing why,” Bryant says. “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.”
We decided to test it out ourselves with a few songs that provoke intense reactions.
“Metal Music Machine”
By 0:14, we're already having flashbacks of and sympathizing with the squeaking bird our cat caught and ripped to shreds when we were in elementary school. Lou Reed keeps up the torture for another 10 minutes, much longer than it took our cat.
Tyler the Creator
From the instant “Yonkers” begins, that creepy, paranoid chord makes us glance over our shoulders, anticipating a raised knife ready to be plunged into our backs. Tyler intensifies the reaction by introducing a shaky synth that sounds like a wounded animal trying not to cry because it knows that will only attract bloodlust.
We think we've figured out why dubstep makes people lose their fucking minds. Within seconds of this compilation of his best beat drops, Skrillex produces noises that sound like some sort of warning call. It puts us on high alert. Our heart's racing, our adrenaline's pumping, and we might rip anyone who gets in our way to shreds. Do not listen to dubstep while driving during rush hour.