Saturday, September 24, 2011

Music, Emotion, and Prediction: What it Means for New Music

Source: Why Do Listeners Enjoy Music that Makes Them Weep?

Retrieved: September 24, 2011, from Podcast with Professor David Huron


David Huron is Professor of Music and head of the Cognitive and Systematic Musicology Laboratory in the School of Music at Ohio State University. He is also affiliated with OSU’s Center for Cognitive Science, and is the author of Sweet Anticipation: Music and the Psychology of Expectation. Host Steven Mencher interviewed Professor Huron after he gave a lecture on his work at the Library of Congress, for the Library's Music and the Brain event.

In his laboratory of cognitive and systematic musicology, Professor Huron and his research team seek to answer questions relating to emotion and music from the perspective of evolutionary psychology and brain science. Examples of these questions are “how does music evoke emotion?”, “how do people learn music?”, and “how do people of different cultures experience music differently?” Many of the questions that Professor Huron seeks to answer are not new, but traditionally research on these questions was done from a historical or hermeneutical standpoint. Cognitive Musicology uses knowledge about the brain and psychology to seek out a different understanding of these long-standing questions/problems.

In the interview, Professor Huron spoke about some issues that he investigates in his book Sweet Anticipation: Music and the Psychology of Expectation. He discusses the element of surprise, and how it plays such an important role in our experience and appreciation of music. Prediction is an ancient and essential survival tool, and when it comes to sound and the auditory world it is one of the brain’s major preoccupations, according to Huron. When people have heard common musical constructs repeatedly, like for example a major scale, they come to expect those constructs when listening to music. When there is deviation from the standard construct, the brain is immediately aware of it. Huron’s research shows that when listening to music, peoples’ brains are constantly predicting what will happen next, as if this skill of predicting, probably originally used to locate a predator and determine what it will do next, has spilled over in our minds to the esoteric and symbolic world of music. Huron commented that research also shows this may be why people are less drawn to and appreciative of new music, and that although we tend to value novelty highly in our lives and in society, it may not be as important as we thought when it comes to listening to and enjoying music.

Another question that Huron has investigated is why we enjoy listening to music that makes us sad. He remarked that sad music gives people a false psychic pain. A part of the brain has been fooled into thinking that something sad has happened, and it experiences and empathizes with this sadness. But the more conscious cognitive part of the brain knows that everything is alright, and this causes a cathartic experience that his team has been chronicling. Part of the mystery of music is that music is composed of abstract sounds not meant to represent or resemble any of the sounds we encounter in our everyday lives, and yet still these sounds are able to evoke such intense emotional experiences. Huron believes that this comes from thousands of years of listening to sound to try and infer affective states from the environment. Humans are such social animals, and we look to sounds to indicate to us the emotional states of others. This skill has transferred over to abstract sounds as well.

At the close of the interview, Professor Huron spoke about how wide reaching his research is. Although he focuses on tackling specifically musical questions, he uses knowledge from many fields to answer his questions (such as psychology, brain science, anthropology, biology, etc.), and many of the principles and understandings that develop from his research apply to other areas of human life. For example, researchers at San Francisco University’s medical school were interested in the idea of expectation and gratification from Huron’s book, and saw applications of this principle in the study of obesity. Since Huron’s research draws on learning from so many fields, it is not surprising that his findings are useful to so many knowledge seekers.


One of the string quartets that my group has been carrying in our repertoire for the last few years is Alban Berg’s Lyric Suite. It is one of the most devilishly difficult pieces in the whole string quartet repertory, both for the performer from a technical perspective, and for the audience from a listening perspective. I remember my first encounter of the piece. Before I worked on my individual part I got a copy of the score and sat down with a recording so that I could follow along on paper as I listened. The piece is about 25 minutes long but for this first hearing it seemed like hours to me, and I remember when the music finally stopped I didn’t even know that the piece had finished. I had to check the track on my CD player, the score had been completely useless to me as a guide to help me follow along and I was utterly confused.

Many performances later, it has come to be one of my all-time favourite works, and occupies a very special and important place in my heart. I will often choose to listen to this over string quartet greatest hits like works by Beethoven or Schubert. Familiarity has helped me to appreciate the piece more, just as Professor Huron argued.

It has also become for me one of the most emotionally powerful pieces that I have ever heard. Although I can’t say that I understand it fully in the theoretical sense (I would be hard pressed to identify the chords I am playing in even the most straight forward movements), I feel I do understand it in some deeper way, in an emotional sense. I often try to quantify why it moves me so, I wonder if it is because Berg’s musical gestures are so inherently emotionally potent that although the chords may be foreign there is still emotion being conveyed in other ways. There are moments in the piece that I find utterly terrifying, or pleasant and sweet, or deeply heartbreaking, so much so that after performing it I tend to be emotionally spent. When planning programs with Berg’s Lyric Suite I always try to get organize it such that the Berg is last on the program, because I cannot imagine listening to a Dvorak quartet after experiencing such all encompassing sadness at the end of the sixth and final movement, largo desolato.

Of course, programming this piece has always been a problem. Even in Europe, the land where the music of Berg and his predecessors originated, presenters we worked with were reluctant to put the piece on a program because they fear it will scare away audiences. People have argued that it is too foreign to the ears of even the more devoted music lovers. Because the piece is so dear to me, I continue to champion it as one of our repertoire staples, but in doing so I have had to think a great deal about the familiarity and how that influences our appreciation of music. After performing the piece maybe 20 or 30 times now it has become a part of my musical language, but I have to constantly remind myself how I felt upon that first listening, how utterly baffled I was, and how the emotion I now feel every time I hear it was completely absent on the first hearing. I need to see where the audience is coming from.

But then it begs the questions: why would I subject anyone to that baffling experience? What is in it for concert-goers? What can I offer to audiences if I am to perform this piece? I must have answers if I am to convince people to hear it for the first time.

One of the things that I have considered in searching for an answer is the art of performance. For those who are not familiar with the music of the Second Viennese School, listening to Berg might be like hearing a poem read in a different language. The words are not recognizable, but is there not more to the experience of a performance? Is learned musical syntax the only way of communicating emotion, or is there also gesture? Stage presence? Tone quality? These are all tools that professional performers are taught, or should be taught, to develop. If I read a poem in a foreign language with no emotional articulation in my voice, completely monotone, the audience would be very justified should they fall asleep. But if I read a poem in a foreign language and impart onto the words all the emotion and meaning that they carry to me in the tone of my voice and in my gestures, then perhaps the audience will have a different experience? They may not understand what has happened, but perhaps they will think ‘I’m not sure why but I feel that I have experienced something sad’. I have certainly experienced this feeling after hearing a great first performance of a new piece. Perhaps a powerful performance such as this would encourage listeners to experience the poem again, or to investigate the grammar of the language or the meaning of some of the words.

So I question, what can David Huron’s research mean to the performer, and how do elements of performing impact his findings? If we play the music as though it has no meaning to us, can we really expect it to have meaning to listeners?


Bev Foster said...

You raise excellent questions for music performers in any genre. We need to live with the music we perform, let it "sink in",and touch the deeper places in our own lives throughout preparation. While performance includes what you suggest- syntax, gesture, stage presence, tone quality - it is personal, reflective preparation that yields authenticity and bears witness to meaning. Practically speaking, I wonder,if we need to add reflective pieces from the performing artist into program notes to help the listener go beyond information? Or share a short personal verbal introduction addressing what this piece of music means to you. Of course this may become redundant, predictable and even manipulative if done all the time. But sharing personal context may help make emotional connectons between the audience, the performers and the music enhancing meaning for all.

Jialiang said...

I would like to share some personal experience on one of the topics Dr. Huron mentioned: how people from different background (cultural, social, professional, etc.) react differently to the same piece of music. I come from China, and have studied classical music for many years. As a music enthusiast, I am always happy and proud to share the music I love with my friends. Last summer I invited another Chinese friend, who plays Pipa, a Chinese traditional instrument similar to lute, to a guitar recital, thinking that with my friend’s musical background, she would find the guitar music interesting and related to her own repertoire. The programme included works from different periods (e.g. Baroque, Romantic and early twentieth century) and from different countries (Germany, Italy and Spain). To a music student’s ear, the guitarist’s performance was consummate, imaginative and emotional. The general experience was very inspiring. However, when I and my friend talked about the concert afterwards, her thought was quite surprising: “I was a little disappointed. I would give him 60 out of 100.” “Why?” I curiously asked, pressing my own excitement. “His articulation is not very clear, especially when there are repeated patterns and fast passages.” “Ok, anything else?” “That’s the main issue. The pieces themselves are very interesting, but his muddy articulation just kept me from fully enjoying the music.” I certainly respect my friend’s opinion, given that she has played the pipa since young, and despite the differences between pipa and guitar, she knows the techniques and the basic principles of playing plucked string instrument. However, I couldn’t stop guessing that, it may be because she is more used to the Chinese traditional repertoire, its effect, articulation, phrasing and so on, so that she couldn’t totally agree with the guitarist’s performance. In other words, the guitar sound was somewhat strange to her. While I myself have been playing and listening to Western classical music for many years, and have been more tuned to its timbres, effects and aesthetics. This would probably link to another topic in Dr. Huron’s research—surprise and anticipation in music listening.