Your Brain On Music: Anticipation


Today, we’ll continue looking through Daniel J. Levitin’s “This Is Your Brain On Music“, once again. Last time, we took a look behind the curtain, and dipped our toes into how our brains react when we listen to music. Today, our discussion will be a little more focused, as we’re going to zero in on one important quality that all music has.

Why is it that we get tired of hearing the same kinds of song over and over? How do we decide when a piece of music is boring us, and why? What exactly is happening in our brains when all of this is going on?

Has the anticipation gotten to you yet? Don’t worry, we’ll cover all of this by the end.

Chapter 4: “Anticipation”

In an earlier post, we talked about how music is organized sound. However, we don’t want the music that we listen to to be too organized so that it becomes predictable. Then, we say it’s emotionally flat, or robotic — lacking something, some ‘human’ element.

In this chapter, Levitin brings this concept back. “The appreciation we have for music is intimately related to our ability to lean the underlying structure of music we like — the equivalent to grammar in spoken or signed language — and to be able to make predictions about what will come next” (p. 111).

This is how musicians, songwriters, and composers control our emotions when constructing songs. They set up some expectations, based on the genre and audience, and then control when those expectations will be met, and how. In a lot of ways, it’s similar to the skill of a magician or master storyteller. The result of prolonging expectations builds up a sense of anticipation in the mind.

Learned Musical Systems

“The brain constructs its own version of reality, based only in part on what is there, and in part on how it interprets the tones we hear as a function of the role they play in a learned musical system…We expect certain pitches, rhythms, timbres, and so on to co-occur based on a statistical analysis our brains have performed of how often they have gone together in the past” (p. 114-115).

Every single person has their own, unique learned musical system, based solely on their own experiences and tastes. When we listen to enough rock songs, we have a certain understanding of what to expect from a new one when we hear it. The ones we call successful are the ones that defy our expectations just enough, while still fitting into, or expanding our view of the learned musical system we have already established.

Musical Expectations in the Brain

Levitin states that, “The best place to begin to look at expectation in the musical brain is in how we track chord sequences in music over time” (p. 125). The important distinction that Levitin draws between visual art and music is that music “is manifested over time”. As each note and chord unfolds, we get a clearer picture of what to expect next, in real time. Unlike reading your favorite novel, there’s no going back when it comes to live music.

But how do we further our understanding of what exactly is happening in the brain? It all comes down to neural organization. After a long-winded and anecdotal digression, Levitin ends the chapter by giving us a nice picture of this.

“All sound begins at the eardrum. Right away, sounds get segregated by pitch. Not much later, speech and music probably diverge into separate processing circuits. The music circuits start to decompose the signal and separately analyze pitch, timbre, contour, and rhythm. The output of neurons performing these tasks connect to regions in the frontal lobe that put it all together” (p. 130).

Once the neurons connect to he frontal lobe, they try to figure out the structure or pattern. Our brains are already pretty great at picking out patterns, even when there isn’t one there. But in music there are always patterns. Whether that comes from the rhythm, melody, or other elements to create structural motifs, is entirely up to the creator.

Final Thoughts

I think now we’re at a good point to answer those questions from earlier. I’ll take a stab at them, and we can see how they hold up.

Why is it that we get tired of hearing the same kinds of song over and over? How do we decide when a piece of music is boring us, and why?

My guess is that these songs stop defying our expectations in any way. You listen to enough pop songs on the radio, and before long, you know exactly how the next will go as soon as you hear the first note. This knowledge makes active listening quite boring.

Next time, we”ll look into how we categorize music in our brains.








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