Does scary music mimic biological voice signals of threat?
Presenter Name:Caitlyn Trevor
School/Affiliation:University of Zürich (Switzerland)
Co-Authors:Natalia B. Fernandez and Sascha Frühholz
Music may communicate emotion by mimicking human ethological vocal signals like crying, screaming, or laughing. For example, music used to underscore frightening scenes in movies is often described as sounding “scream-like”. A well-known example is the music accompanying the infamous shower murder scene in Hitchcock’s film Psycho. Although ‘scream-like’ is a common descriptor, the question remains: are these scary film soundtrack excerpts actually perceived similarly to human screams? We investigated this question by comparing the neural networks responding to a vocal cue (a scream) and its musical imitation (scream-like music). 32 healthy and non-musician participants from the University of Zürich (18 female, age: M = 27; SD = 5.46) took part in the fMRI study. Participants performed a 1 back task on auditory stimuli (total of 480 trials) presented in a pseudorandomized order. Stimuli were categorized by affect (scream-like vs non-scream-like) and sound type (vocal vs musical) in a 2 × 2 factorial design. Our results suggest that compared with music, vocal sounds provoked stronger activations in higher-order areas of the auditory cortices and in the amygdala. Compared with non-scream-like sounds, scream-like sounds seem to provoke higher activations in lower-order areas of the auditory cortices and in areas associated with fear processing, survival circuits, and startle responses. Directly comparing screams and scream-like music demonstrated stronger activations in the primary auditory cortex and cerebellum for screams. Our results contribute to research on how the brain processes the voice versus music, how it processes fearful sounds, and to investigations of music and emotion more broadly.