Music, Music, Music

Why do we like music, and what about it do we like? Via Marginal Revolution, here is a provocative theory. The fundamental idea:

There are two interesting takeaways from this experiment. The first is that music hijacks some very fundamental neural mechanisms. The brain is designed to learn by association: if this, then that. Music works by subtly toying with our expected associations, enticing us to make predictions about what note will come next, and then confronting us with our prediction errors. In other words, every melody manipulates the same essential mechanisms we use to make sense of reality.

In his book on Black Holes, S. Chandrasekar has a pair of epigraphs which I will try to quote from memory: Heisenberg - Beauty consists of proper proportion of the parts to the whole, and to each other.
and Francis Bacon: "There is no thing of excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion."

The point, I think, is that both order and tension with disorder are necessary. From the post and the musical paper:

The paper consists of a computational model and and an experiment. The model essentially demonstrated that statistical predictions based on our personal listening experience - because I listen to Bruce Springsteen, I'm able to predict the melodies of John Mellencamp - was much better at simulating the mind than a rule-based model, in which our expectations are fixed and inflexible.

The experiment was more compelling. The scientists measured the brain waves of a twenty subjects while they listened to various hymns. It turned out that unexpected notes - pitches that violated the previous melodic pattern - triggered an interesting sequence of neural events and a spike in brain activity:

Our electrophysiological results showed that low-probability notes, as compared to high-probability notes, elicited a larger (i) negative ERP component at a late time period (400-450 ms), (ii) beta band (14-30 Hz) oscillation over the parietal lobe, and (iii) long-range phase synchronization between multiple brain regions.

So why do we crave surprise as a contrast to the order? It's evolution's way of teaching us how to be prepared for the unexpected possible.

The ability to anticipate forthcoming events has clear evolutionary advantages, and predictive successes or failures often entail significant psychological and physiological consequences. In music perception, the confirmation and violation of expectations are critical to the communication of emotion and aesthetic effects of a composition.

Exercise for the student: What do Taylor Swift and Lady Gaga have in common that helps explain their respective successes?


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