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Music Is Enjoyable Because of Expectation, Surprise & Uncertainty

·617 words·3 mins
Psyched for the Weekend

I supported myself for several years as a professional musician. These days I mostly play in private, using it as a way to unpack thoughts or relieve stress.

Anyway, I used to date a non-musician who, while well aware of my history as a musician, insisted that the way I listened to music was wrong.

He noted that I seemed to view music almost as a system of logic, a conversation among instruments. And that I reacted to relationships between parts of the composition.

“Where I,” he announced proudly, “appreciate music more fully — because I consider it in a holistic manner.”

He’d go on to stress again that I was only listening to parts of the music, and he was listening to the whole thing, so clearly his method of appreciating music was superior.

Um. Okay. So that’s an argument.

I was always kind of confused by this belief of his, as I was entirely able to comment on generalities of the music we were listening to as a whole — I could follow the global assessments that he was making and interface with them myself (either disagreeing or agreeing).

True, I did also talk about specifics of the composition. What a certain instrument was doing here. How the melody played against the chord progression there.

But not solely specifics.

Still, he argued, the fact that I referred to specifics meant I was clearly missing the point.

It was wild to me. I really didn’t agree with him, but I also didn’t see a way to meaningfully convince him. Not one that would make any sense to him anyway.

Mostly I just avoided discussing music with him for the duration of our relationship (which eventually ended for other reasons).

Music Is Enjoyable Because of Expectation, Surprise & Uncertainty

I was, however, vindicated when someone close to me sent me a recent study about musical pleasure and how it can be mapped to brain activity via fMRI. Here’s a link to the full study here.

The nitty gritty is fully accessible for free via that address. The researchers came up with a model to quantify aspects of pop song chord progressions in order to evaluate their qualities. But here are a couple notable findings:

  • Musical pleasure is dependent on listener expectation — both before and after the fact (or, as the study puts it, prospective and retrospective).
  • Uncertainty and surprise played key roles in listener pleasure.

I look at these and think back on my non-musician boyfriend who insisted that I didn’t appreciate music as much as he did because I was concerned with constituent parts and can easily disagree with him. And in doing so, I further see a path where we were _both _correct in our forms of appreciation.

I think ultimately we were both responding to expectation, uncertainty, and surprise in our experiences as listeners. However, my musical training and background led me to be more explicit about my expectations as a musical listener.

This was likely frustrating and/or confusing to someone without that same background. So I believe he defensively dismissed my training as nitpicking or dissection of the music into meaningless components.

Perhaps his dismissal of me was in earnest. Perhaps he did so because he did find those components I pointed out to be meaningless, having not been exposed to similar training himself that would allow him to glean more meaning from them.

In any event, an interesting study.


This post is part of an ongoing Poly Land feature called Psyched for the Weekend, in which I geek out with brief takes about some of my favorite psychological studies and concepts. For the entire series, please see this link.


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