The Loh Down On Science

Arousing Distortion

Harsh? Distorted? Or just another year in college?

This is Sandra Tsing Loh with the Loh Down on Science and some rock and roll research.

Meet UCLA biologist Dan Blumstein. After studying distress calls in animals, he and colleagues became interested in exploring how dissonant sounds in music impact emotions in humans.

By dissonant, we mean harsh, abrupt, or unpredictable--not just every pop song that annoys parents.

Surveying some of the 38,000 undergraduates that attend UCLA, the researchers played one group music clips of unemotional elevator music.

Other students heard the same song, but with abruptly distorted sounds. Think going from Kenny G to Nine Inch Nails in less than ten seconds. Ow!

These samples, with harsh distortion, rated more negative and upsetting than the elevator music. However, they were also rated more exciting!

The researchers believe distorted music may be closely related to animal distress calls. Which may be why, for humans, the dissonance is uniquely “arousing.” That’s the researchers’ word, not ours.

I guess that’s what you call positive feedback.

The Loh Down on Science is produced by LDOS Media Lab, with 89.3 KPCC Pasadena. And made possible by the generous support of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.


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