Beast International: Does Rock Music Rouse the Animal Within?

The Sound of Primal Distress Calls?

Alt=Alan Harvey

There’s no doubt rock music evokes excitement, but is there more to that excitement than guitar solos and head banging?

Writing in the Telegraph recently, science correspondent Nick Collins remarked:

“Rock music … excites us because it recreates the sound of primal distress calls and ‘brings out the animal in us’ scientists claim.” Collins was discussing a paper called The Sound of Arousal in Music is Context-dependent, by David Blumstein, Greg Bryant and Peter Kaye, published earlier this month in Biology Letters.

Interestingly, the paper contains no reference to rock music — nowhere is there a statement about “the animal in us”. Instead, these broader links were made by one of the authors, Greg Bryant of the UCLA Center for Behavior, Evolution and Culture in Los Angeles, when he was interviewed for the Telegraph piece:

“This study helps explain why the distortion of rock-and-roll gets people excited”.

I would have thought exciting for some people — but not necessarily all?

And what does the phrase “brings out the animal in us” even mean? Humans are animals after all, so what types of behaviour are alluded to here? Are these the evil, antisocial behaviours that 1950s America thought were stimulated by listening to Elvis, music that Ed Sullivan once said was “unfit for family viewing?”

You Should be Dancing

Dancing is a universal human attribute. Rhythmic movements of body and limbs in response to music are also a typical human trait, almost certainly driven by neuronal circuitries that involve the complex basal ganglia motor system.

There’s no doubt rock music can be highly stimulating and emotionally energising, but so can other forms of music that entrain physiological arousal states.

Music we enjoy, whatever its nature, activates neural centres typically linked with reward behaviours. Music we dislike drives other regions such as the amygdala, a large grey-matter structure buried in the forebrain that has long been associated with a person’s mental state and subjective responses to emotion (valence), often with events that elicit negative affective states.

Strong responses to music are not merely the domain of rock. American novelist and journalist Norman Mailer described jazz as orgasm, German composer Richard Wagner was variously described as a “demented eunuch”, and a “tonal antichrist”, and the great conductor Sir Thomas Beecham is quoted to have said: “I’ve not heard any Stockhausen, but I think I’ve trodden in some.”

Your Brain on Music

The paper in Biology Letters compared subjects’ responses to neutral music and the same music that was interrupted by noise or abrupt frequency shifts. The authors suggested that these harsh sounds are akin to danger signals, harsh vocalisations signalling danger and fearful arousal in the listener.

The researchers also make the interesting recommendation that ecologically based acoustic phenomena, presumably sounds that resemble what is generated in nature, be it animate or inanimate, should be used in music cognition studies in addition to “traditionally studied dimensions such as melody, timbre, and rhythm”.

Fair enough, although I find the link between the computer-generated non-linearities (random distortions and sudden changes in frequency) and animal calls a little tenuous. And surely arousal states are not necessarily fearful states, or indications of danger, as seems to be assumed by Blumstein and colleagues?

The other interesting aspect of the paper, not discussed at all by Nick Collins in the Telegraph, was what I would consider a major focus of the study: how responses to unpredictable nonlinear sounds were modified when subjects also viewed videos showing “benign activities,” such as people drinking coffee or reading a book.

There was reduced arousal but valence judgements were less affected, leading the authors to conclude that “perceptual context influences multi-modal perception“.

It is perhaps to be expected that consistency in signals received via different types of sensory input is important in how we interpret information. Thus the amygdala and other brain regions are especially active when both facial expression and the emotional content of speech signify happiness.

Or to put it another way: “You can’t hide your lyin' eyes and your smile is a thin disguise. I thought by now you’d realize there ain’t no way to hide your lyin' eyes”.

It would be of interest to know if the same random distortion noise and sudden frequency shifts used in the Blumstein study elicit similar responses even in the absence of an underlying musical substrate. Would the sounds alone be sufficient?

What Makes Music?

What defines music anyway? Are the screeching violins that accompany the famous shower scene in Psycho music? Or are they just random sounds that might as well be generated by dragging a finger nail across a blackboard?

In fact, the fascinating interactions between music and visual images have been the subject of a number of studies. Associating emotion-laden music with concurrent visual stimuli (“real world” content) has been reported to have an additive effect and increase responses in certain parts of the brain, and co-presentation of sad or scary music together with pictures depicting similar emotions produces in the amygdala and elsewhere the greatest emotional brain responses.

As pointed out by the late philosopher Denis Dutton: “audiences worldwide find it natural and fitting that movies have musical scores to underline or interpret the emotions implicit in the story; even the earliest silent films were given musical accompaniment” and the nature of the background music affects how we remember visual events.

So does rock music recreate the sound of primal distress calls and bring out the animal in us? Well, it is certainly stimulating, energising, sometimes wonderful, sometimes horribly distracting.

But music is a human universal, a communication stream that is, in my view, unique to us.

So if anything the headline of this piece, and any other like it, should be asking not about animals but rather: does rock music rouse the human within?


Alan R. Harvey, June 2012. Entered on Knowledge Base 7 March 2014.

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