Saturday, February 12, 2011

"Music is a form whose meaning depends upon its violation."

Jonah Lehrer analyzes "the neuroscience of music."

But there's something I don't understand about his whole explanation. It's all about how music sets up "expectations" and then violates them, or delays the satisfaction of them:

While music can often seem (at least to the outsider) like a labyrinth of intricate patterns – it’s art at its most mathematical – it turns out that the most important part of every song or symphony is when the patterns break down, when the sound becomes unpredictable. If the music is too obvious, it is annoyingly boring, like an alarm clock. (Numerous studies, after all, have demonstrated that dopamine neurons quickly adapt to predictable rewards. If we know what’s going to happen next, then we don’t get excited.) This is why composers introduce the tonic note in the beginning of the song and then studiously avoid it until the end. [I don't know of any music that fits that description! — JAC] The longer we are denied the pattern we expect, the greater the emotional release when the pattern returns, safe and sound. That is when we get the chills. . . .

The uncertainty makes the feeling – it is what triggers that surge of dopamine in the caudate, as we struggle to figure out what will happen next. And so our neurons search for the undulating order, trying to make sense of this flurry of pitches. We can predict some of the notes, but we can’t predict them all, and that is what keeps us listening, waiting expectantly for our reward, for the errant pattern to be completed.
Here's what I don't get: I've listened to the first movement of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony so many times that I know in advance what the whole thing is going to sound like, note for note. There isn't a single moment in the piece that I find genuinely surprising. I don't expect anything else from it other than exactly what it gives me. (Even if you're not a Beethoven fan like me, one so often hears the movement played that you could easily become well-acquainted with it without trying.) If enjoying music is all about challenging our expectations, shouldn't this movement fall flat for me? But I find it one of the most effective and emotional pieces of music in the world.

This video even gives you visual cues about what's going to happen in that movement before it happens (by Stephen Malinowski, who has over 100 of these). I don't find that this detracts from the musical experience at all:


Ann Althouse said...

The visual depiction of the structure of what's going on is a big help to someone like me who isn't good at music. I like the way you can see the past and future while hearing the present. It makes the structure much more comprehensible to me.

John Althouse Cohen said...

I definitely recommend clicking that link in the last paragraph of the post — he has lots of videos for Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, Chopin, Debussy, etc.

John Althouse Cohen said...

Some good ones:

Debussy - Arabesque #1

Debussy - Claire de Lune

Mozart - Eine Kleine Nachtmusik (first movement)

Bach - Toccata and Fugue in D minor

I should do a separate blog post about these...

Ann Althouse said...

Cool! Thanks!

Chris said...

I heard a talk a couple years ago by David Huron, a music theorist with a cognitive science angle, and he brought up the same paradox: that expectation and its violation are a key part of any music, but 1) music we know well still affects us and 2) the defiance of our expectations is really constrained compared to what they might be (i.e., when great composers break the rules, they tend to do so in "predictable" ways). Anyway, he's got a nice book that discusses some of these things, if it's something you find interesting.

TMink said...

I think he is leaving out the real neurological impact of music, and that is in the brain's affective centers. He focuses on cognition, on expectation. The more important focus is on the emotional responses, something he completely avoids even addressing.

The goldmine is in the subjective experience and meaning of the listener, an area that is completely neglected in the research or article. It is not that music is reinforcing, cocaine and peanut butter are reinforcing. It is that music communicates intense emotions and elicits them in the listener. Not just reward, but fear, and love, and joy, and despair.

That is where the magic is. And that is what the article missed entirely. I share your disappointment.


Bryan said...

The McGill researchers in Montreal have been putting out papers for a while and while interesting, I often feel that they don't capture the real effect of music. Meyer's delayed expectations theory is popular with a lot of theorists because it gives them something to work with. But counter-examples, such as the one John cites, of a piece that you have heard so often you know exactly what is coming, are numerous. Also, what about Steve Reich's music which gives many pleasure, but is all about repetition, a slowly evolving process? No defeated or delayed expectations there.

I also have to disagree with Trey that music communicates intense emotions AS SUCH. Fear, despair, joy and so on, as ordinary emotions always have objects. One fears something, is joyful about something. In music we have no emotions with objects. What we have is mood and atmosphere, but in the realm of the abstract. I think that what good music expresses is musical beauty, with analogues to feelings that we also connect with the ordinary emotions. I know this is vague and general, but hey, one would need a very long book to really dig into it...

Lyle Sanford, RMT said...

I've wondered the same thing and have a sort of an answer that works for me. Part of it is that neuroscience research is pretty much in horse and buggy days, and that they seem to be using music as a tool to study the brain as much using knowledge of the brain to talk about music. (Apparently music makes it light up more than anything else we do.)

Also, the main empirical result of this study was showing for the first time music can cause the release of dopamine in subjects especially susceptible to the "chills" effect. Everything else is mostly or completely speculation.

The brain liking the "unexpected" is suggested by a lot of these studies. The best analogy I can come up with is that it's like driving different kinds of roads.

There are a couple of roads, one in the Blue Ridge and one in the Ozarks, each of which I've driven a number of times and have the twists and turns mostly memorized, but I always get a kick out of driving them. Even though I know what's coming, there's the need to pay attention to all the changes, and somehow negotiating my way through those changes is pleasurable.

A piece of music you really like can be the same way. Your mood when listening will always be a bit different, and different performances will bring out different aspects, so the listening experience will always be a bit different.

So I think "unexpected" is probably not the best word for what the neuroscientists are talking about. I think part of the reason it pops up so much is that you can use it to talk about how paying attention to the "unexpected" taps into evolutionary survival skills.

I also agree with your commenters that the emotional content of music is very important. Right now the neuroscientists can only see that those parts of the brain light up as well, but don't really know what's going on.

This is more a list of random thoughts than an answer to your question. Mainly wanted to compliment you on your "beginner"s mind" approach to the subject. I've not seen anyone else raise this issue.

John Althouse Cohen said...

Your mood when listening will always be a bit different, and different performances will bring out different aspects, so the listening experience will always be a bit different.

I agree that every experience listening to the same piece of music will be at least a little bit different. That can always be said. But if this is taken to support Lehrer's expectation theory, wouldn't that mean his theory is nonfalsifiable, and thus not a scientific theory? I wrote the blog post on the assumption that Lehrer was trying to present a falsifiable theory. I feel that it's not just falsifiable but can actually be falsified through some fairly straightforward introspection about one's experience when listening to music that thoroughly satisfies your expectations. If the response is, "Well, surely that music still challenges your expectations in little ways that are barely perceptible but still support the theory," I would question whether the facts are being characterized with an eye to making sure they fit the theory.

Lyle Sanford, RMT said...

No argument with what you've said. As I understand it the only solid empirical data in the study is the proving of the dopamine release in a few very carefully selected subjects. Everything else at this point is speculation, informed or otherwise.

People are going back to Meyer's work (done in the 50's) because it seems to suggest a way of trying to think about the new info. Don't know of anyone having presented a full fledged theory of the various mechanisms and mediations. Also, the research methodology is so primitive at this point, not sure it's up to testing out theories.

Something is happening here, but we don't (yet) know what it is.

Lyle Sanford, RMT said...

Thought of you and your Beethoven experiences watching this depiction of music lighting up the brain. The expected/unexpected thing is probably just one light on the Christmas tree.