Great expectations fuel musical pleasure

Grammy award winner Bobby McFerrin (who once told us to Don't Worry, Be Happy) used a TED talk to show how humans have an innate understanding of the pentatonic scale.

Grammy award winner Bobby McFerrin (who once told us to Don’t Worry, Be Happy) used a TED talk to show how humans have an innate understanding of the pentatonic scale.

Scientists have put a lot of research into exploring why music has the power to make us feel so good. How it is that music can magnify or even elicit specific emotions?

Lately, one of the main hypotheses finding favour is that it is all about expectation and anticipation.

If you were ever excited about Christmas as a child or have pined achingly for your upcoming holiday while bashing out Excel spreadsheets at work, you have known that sweet, suspended state of expectation that can sometimes be more enjoyable than the thing itself.

Our brains rely on this cognitive process of expectation for the experience of musical pleasure, which composers can exploit easily by satisfying or violating expectation by choreographing specific rhythms, tones or melodies.

The idea of expectation being at the heart of our enjoyment of music is not a new one: Leonard Meyer explored the concept in his 1956 work Emotion and Meaning in Music. Meyer’s thought was that any time anyone listens to music, their experience of it is shaped and conditioned by the body of musical experience they bring to it up to that point. This experience sets up certain expectations, and music’s power lies in its capacity to satisfy or violate these expectations. An awesome example is Bobby McFerrin’s TED talk, in which he examines how our brains are wired and plays with the audience’s power of expectation with the pentatonic scale.

Biologically, there doesn’t seem to be much point to us enjoying music. From a scientific point of view, it seems odd that music makes us feel so good considering the lack of evolutionary value that pleasure would seem to have.

Listening to pleasurable music releases dopamine – the same chemical that gets released in the brain from having sex. With no clear value for our survival or propagation, why does music release the same chemical as the act that propagates our species?

Musicologist David Huron explored this question in his 2006 paper Sweet Anticipation and the Psychology of Expectation.

He suggests that the pleasure and reward our brains get from hearing satisfying sounds does actually have an evolutionary advantage. Expectation is a constant part of mental life and a well-adapted sense of expectation is a biological advantage. This adaptive mechanism bypasses the ”logical” part of the brain, and goes straight to the ”gut reaction”, helps us make predictions about our environment based on very little information, and is a useful skill that was once, and still is, essential to our survival.

Kate Kingsmill (The Sydney Morning Herald) / August 30, 2013

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