Saturday, August 3, 2013

Expecting good music?

Review of a book on music theory: Sweet anticipation, by David Huron.

Music is one of the more mysterious pleasures of the human condition. Why do we like it? How can composers tap into our deep emotions using notes? Why has modern music gone off the rails? Why do different cultures and time periods make different music? How many different musics could there be?

An author who claims to have many of the answers is David Huron, of Ohio State, whose book, "Sweet anticipation" proposes an psychologically based theory for some aspects of music appreciation, centered around how we predict events, evaluate prior predictions, react to events, and generally relate to the future. (He gives a very nice talk on many of these issues here.)

I can't do much justice to his book in a very brief essay, but will offer a few points. His philosophical basis is very naturalistic- that the brain is a machine for predicting the future, to help us flourish there.

"In many ways, expectation can be regarded as yet another sense: a sense of the future. In the same way that the sense of vision provides the mind with information about the world of light energy, the sense of the future provides the mind with information about upcoming events. Compared with the other senses, the sense of the future is the closest biology comes to magic. It tells us not about how the world is, but how the world will be. It arose through natural selection's myriad efforts over millions of years to produce organisms capable of clairvoyance and prophecy. A stockbroker might value the ability to predict the future as a way to becoming rich. But for Nature, the value of predicting the future is the more precious gift of living longer."

He presents a detailed scheme, graphed through time, of how we relate to any event, with higher mental and evolutionary functions residing farther away from the event itself, and more ancient functions closer. Long beforehand, we imagine and dream about it, whether it is bad or good. As we get closer, tension rises, as we prepare a more physiological response, and register more specific expectations about it. Right after the event occurs, we may have basic flight/fight responses, later tempered by more mature reflection about the actual meaning of the event.

Interestingly, he adds another response immediately after an event, which is a prediction success response. Whatever an event's significance and affect, our success in predicting it provides another and rather immediate kind of affective jolt. If we are going to get poked in the arm for a vaccination, expect that it hurts, and it then hurts, we at least take some satisfaction in the successful prediction.

This is a critically important response for learning, giving rapid feedback to our prediction machinery. For instance, learning to play an instrument, there are countless wrong moves, and somehow, we have an internal reward system that notes what happened back in time to create correct actions, and reinforces those circuits in some fashion based on an emotional satisfaction with the few correct moves. This system is, frankly, still very hard to understand.

For music appreciation, this scheme of expectation and reward, borne of far more general biological imperatives, leads to many typical musical phenomena. Like the stereotypical ending of Western music where notes descend into a resolving chord. We expect it, so the composer is sort of obliged to provide it. But then rebellious composers try to mess with our heads. Huron makes a particular point of Richard Wagner, who apparently made a career out of avoiding typical endings in his pieces. Which can heighten tension and strengthen ultimate enjoyment, but may get tedious over time as well.

We expect notes to follow each other in pretty close succession. Scales are very common in music, while large jumps are more rare. Key signatures are maintained for some time, then modulated in gradual fashion, if at all. Very few people have perfect pitch, rather, most of us appreciate music in a relative way, hardly noticing when a song has been transposed to a different key. This is sensible, given our amazing capacity to consistently interpret spoken language from speakers with vastly different pitches and timbres.

Expectations happen at at least two distinct levels- the memory of a particular piece, and the more general expections surrounding the genre of music, and perhaps the overall cultural approach to music. Any of these can be confounded to create surprising effects- surprises can that entertain when our higher cognition kicks in to say that they are harmless / playful.
"Two general lessons might be highlighted from among the arguments presented in this book. The first is that many musical devices can be plausibly traced to the 'deep structure' of evolutionary psychology. The mental mechanisms involved in musical expectation are biological adaptations that arose through natural selection. At the same time, musical expectations are intimately linked to culture. The expectations listeners form echo the structures of the acoustical worlds they inhabit. In the case of music, those acoustical worlds are defined largely by culture. Both culture and biology shape the phenomenal experience of musical expectation."

The one quibble I would have with Huron is that he attempts to extend his theory of expectation as the foundation for our responses to music to tonality. Substantial space is devoted to tabulating the commonality or rarity of particular chord or note sequences, making the case that Western listeners like what they hear pretty much only because they hear it alot. We have a middle C based culture, but it could have been anything else (like twelve tone-ism, for instance!). Other cultures enjoy quite different tonalities as well as rhythyms. And I would strongly disagree. The way that Asian audiences have taken Beethoven et al. to heart is a testament to the universality of music, and I would counter that there are deep immovable aspects to tonality that provide the basic magic of music. It is not clear that the direction of causality goes from frequency to appreciation nearly as much as it goes from appreciation to frequency.

Sure, there are many variations and musics around the world, and it can take some effort, and even childhood training, to appreciate some of the more exotic forms. Culture has a great influence, and even within a culture, musical fashions change continually. For one thing, the speech patterns we grow up with have strong effects on our ultimate perception of music. Yet it is not clear that, for instance, mothers sing to their children in very different tones around the world, nor is it true that anything at all can come to be a deeply moving musical experience. Twelve-tonism and the antics of John Cage remain pedantic curiosities, not because we have not been exposed to them quite enough times, but because they fail to tap into relatively immovable, inborn pleasures of sound.

Pleasures that long predate any kind of formal music per se, but come up in our interactions with nature around us, in the sing-song patterns of our spoken sentences, and in our spontaneous humming and other nonverbal communications. Great amounts of information (especially emotional information) are conveyed during face to face encounters by the slightest inflection or tone. All this would be hard to wedge into a theory based only on expectations formed out of a statistical templating by the most common sounds, but has to be based to some extent on inborn relations to tonality.
"In Western culture, most aesthetic philosophers  use the word 'pleasure' to imply a sort of crude bodily sensation, the 'pleasure principle' is regarded as some unrefined and perhaps demeaning motive, unworthy of sophisticated people.  Few ideas have been more harmful in impeding our efforts to understand the arts."


"Let us take supply-side theory at its face value, however modest that may be. It holds that the work habits of the American people are tied irrevocably to their income, though in a curiously perverse way. The poor do not work because they have too much income; the rich do not work because they do not have enough income. You expand and revitalize the economy by giving the poor less, the rich more."

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