Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Pleasures of Prediction

Robert Jourdain brings up an interesting idea in his book, "the quest for universals in melody design is important to our larger concern of how music takes hold of us and gives us pleasure (Jourdain, 1997, p.60)." He continues by adding, "spontaneous neural activity increased [is] a sign of heightened expectations." This brings to light an important question: how does music bring about pleasure? Interestingly, Jourdain’s connection of pleasure to expectation corresponds to what is observed by modern neuroscientists.

In fact, anticipation and prediction are taken on by the limbic system as opposed to the cortex regions in musical chills. This system releases dopamine not only during peak emotional moments within the form of the music but also 15 seconds before these moments (Salimpoor, 2011). What does familiarity and anticipation have to do with pleasure? The answer is intriguing, yet simple: craving and desire, which can be described as the anticipation of reward. It is quite interesting that an abstract reward, in this case music, can allow pleasure to arise that is similar to the satisfaction of appetite, sex or addictive drugs. Dopamine, the pleasure neurotransmitter is implicated in motivation. This substance is excreted from the primordial regions of the brain, which are sometimes referred to as the 'reptilian core.' This system evolved earlier than brain regions that process higher-ordered internal representations. Salimpoor et al. (2011) notes that pleasure for music resembles pleasure derived from tangible objects. Since music is conceptually abstract and not tangible, that fact that musical pleasure requires both systems that process higher-ordered representations and also autonomic systems demonstrates how the love music taps into systems that are deeply ingrained into our neurology, including those implicated in basic survival urges.

Another peak experience some derive pleasure from is described as "flow" (Czikszentmihalyi, 1990). Flow seems to be a highly temporal experience that allows the quick prediction of manipulability to become relaxed and continuous. It seems to align and connect moment-by-moment kinesthetic or cognitive experiences. As these moments unfold and are automatically categorized by the brain, they sequence into a perpetually forward moving feeling, which is referred to as flow. This kind of experience is one that is not necessarily unique to music. One can feel this kind of feeling in the engagement of a competitive sport or even inane activities, which are essentially endless in scope. Complete engagement seems to be the key in both chills and flow. When attention is highly focused, engaged and cognizant of incoming streams of feelings and sensations, particular types of stimulation might become highly pleasurable.

While finding a universally pleasurable melody seems a difficult quest, certain melodies are able to get stuck in minds of most people in a very pervasive sense. These are called “ear worms.” Earworms are essentially involuntarily difficult to forget (Liikkanen, 2011). A common example is heard in the classic TV commercials for antiperspirant where the company’s auditory watermark is a Perfect Fourth interval between 2 pitch-classes performed by a group of manly baritones that sing, “By Mennen.” To classically trained ears, this brings about connotations of a stable Perfect Cadence, a harmony often heard at the end of melodies such as in the ‘amen’ sung during church services. Once heard, this simple set of notes repeats in the mind. One might ask, “isn’t a melody that’s catchy also pleasurable to think about?” The continuous involuntary imaging of a single melody is not necessarily enjoyable because its incessancy can cause irritation. This could be especially true if it involves the involuntary remembrance of an antiperspirant ad, which seems to be the goal of the good people at the Mennen Corporation. Earworms seem to pervasively encode into the memory and become almost unforgettable. In this sense, a part of the lack of musical pleasure from remembering an earworm might be that there is nothing to anticipate and therefore nothing to crave. Ironically, eventual familiarity also might bring about enjoyment, which in theory could occur with any earworm as well if it is reheard. Songs often contain earworms for example. Even taking into account the 15-second expectation of pleasure observed by Salimpoor et al. (2011), it should be noted that the group had their participants bring in music they personally found pleasurable and were familiar with. If the goal is to imprint an association between a melody and a tangible object, certainly the almost universally unforgettable earworm is a good type of melody to use. Nevertheless, while earworm theory provides the basis for universally memorable melodies, it certainly does not elucidate a theory of universal aesthetics in melody construction.

Arguably, music has no biological survival value like food or warmth, yet the fact that music is seen in all human cultures seems ironically better explained through neurobiology. Salimpoor et al. (2011) also tested music for other biological factors that seem important in pleasure states. This includes physiological indicators of emotional arousal including changes in heart rate, respiration, electrodermal activity, body temperature, and blood volume pulse. Music indeed aroused basic bodily systems in ways that correspond to pleasure and emotional states.

Certainly, the conception of melody is highly related to anticipation and its subsequent resolution. Tension and release seems to be one of the elements that create forward momentum and therefore room for anticipation in certain melodies. As the momentum builds and expectations mount, the anticipation networks fire and are played with in a pleasurable way. This interaction between prediction and pleasure in musical peak experiences occur at the level of biology and brain. While universal answers to music making may not be available, science has been able to answer some questions as to how music takes a hold of the human consciousness and gives pleasure. Certainly, it would appear that expectations offered by a continuous incoming stream of meanings play a key role in musical pleasure.


Czikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper Collins.

Jourdain, R. (1997). Music, the Brain and Ecstasy. New York: Harper Perennial.

Liikkanen, L. A. (2011). Inducing involuntary musical imagery: an experimental study. Musicae Scientiae.

Salimpoor, V. N., Benevoy, M., Larcher, K., Dagher, A. & Zatorre, R. (2011). Anatomically distinct dopamine release during anticipation and experience of peak emotion to music. Nature Neuroscience,14, 257-264.

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