Report: Rock Music Brings Out the Animal in Us

A new study suggests humans' reactions to rock music are evolutionary.

Ever wonder why a punk rock concert has so much energy? Or why a guitar solo makes the hairs on your neck tingle?

Turns out, it may be an evolutionary response: A new study by researchers at UCLA suggest that humans may react to distortion in music in the same way that animals react to distress calls from their peers.

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To test their hypothesis, Peter Kaye, a television and movie score composer, and Greg Bryant, a communications studies professor at UCLA, composed several short pieces of music. Each piece was made to sound like elevator music, but certain samples had a distorted, guitar-like sound overlaid.

"When [participants] hear the version with the distortion in it, it's more arousing and negatively valenced—it's associated with fear," Bryant says. "That's the response we get from animals—it raises the idea that aspects of music are so evocative to use because we have an evolutionary history of paying attention to these [distressing] kinds of sounds."

Bryant says people might listen to rock music for the same reason they watch horror movies—it's a safe way to induce fear and get adrenaline pumping.

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"Even though horror movies are scary, people voluntarily watch them. You can get some sort of pleasurable benefit out of it," he says. "Certain people are drawn to this type of music with intense features—that's why you get young, angst-ridden kids listening to punk rock. They get the chance to get out their aggression."

He says none of the research results are terribly surprising—musicians instinctively know how to compose emotion-inducing music.

"They're not aware why it's arousing, but it's what they do anyways—when you hit a distortion pedal, it's very similar to what animals do when they're in danger," Bryant says.

The group is currently working on another study that will measure participants' physical responses to distortion in music—whether there are measurable changes in heart and breathing rates and whether sweat glands are activated by music.

Jason Koebler is a science and technology reporter for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow him on Twitter or reach him at