Thursday, December 6, 2012

Why Do Listeners Enjoy Music that Makes them Weep?

Mencher, S. (Host). (29 April 2010). Why Do Listeners Enjoy Music that Makes them Weep? On Music and the Brain [Online sound recording]. D. Huron (Interviewee). Library of Congress Podcasts. Retrieved December 5, 2012, from

In this podcast, Host Steven Mencher interviews Professor David Huron, Head of Ohio State University’s Cognitive and Systematic Musicology Laboratory and author of “Sweet Anticipation – Music and the Psychology of Expectation”. Huron explains how his research path began in the humanities and led him to cognitive and systematic musicology.  He suggests that the amount of knowledge in musicology doubles every eight years, making it an exciting field in which to be involved.  When musicologists follow questions about music through, it may lead them into various unfamiliar disciplines, such as endocrinology and neuroscience.  Musicologists must thus be willing to work extremely hard to learn new skills in order to be able to find answers to the questions they have about music.
         Next, Huron describes the basic premise of his book, “Sweet Anticipation – Music and the Psychology of Expectation”.  He explains that one of the reasons music is pleasurable is the relationship between expectation and the deviation from expected outcomes.  We are exposed to typical cultural patterns in music, such as scales, so many times that the both the deviation from the expected outcome and the expected outcome are pleasurable.  The brain is highly attuned to deviations from expectations in both music and speech.  The anticipation of what we think will happen is a large part of the pleasure of music.
         The absence of patterns that the brain can anticipate in abstract music is one of the reasons audiences often find new music un-enjoyable.  Experimental research shows that there are two kinds of novel situations– those in which the subject is aware of diversion from the expectation, and those where the subjects are not consciously aware of the change. Subjects only prefer novelty if they are consciously aware of the manipulation. Novelty is less important for maintaining interest than previously thought. Huron uses the analogy of ordering a new item off the menu at your favourite restaurant.  Although you may enjoy your meal, there is likely a slight tinge of disappointment on missing out on your favourite dish, which you always order.
         Huron explains that the pleasure of expectation makes a piece of music that much more pleasurable when it is listened to for a second time.  Historically, this was the reason for the encore, which was literally playing a piece for the second time in a performance. This second hearing was of vital importance for the enjoyment of the piece, because this performance would likely be the first and last time one would hear it.  The encore allowed for “sweet anticipation” to build. 
         Next, Mencher asks Huron to explain why humans enjoy sad music, beginning with this quote from Oscar Wilde: “In playing Chopin I feel as if I am weeping over sins I haven’t committed and mourning over losses that are not my own.”  Huron suggests that music creates a kind of sham psychological pain where part of the brain is fooled into thinking something tragic has happened, leading to the experience of grief or sadness.  The conscious part of the brain then assessed the situation and realizes the situation is not dire. This leads to a feeling of catharsis, or false pain that gives way to relief.  Huron explains that cathartic experiences are linked to the hormone prolactin, which is a hormone that soothes the body.  Prolactin is released through the act of crying, and can even be measured in tears.  The release of prolactin is the one of the body’s ways of taking care of itself and maintaining homeostasis by not allowing the physiology of crying to continue for too long.   
         In the final portion of the podcast, Huron and Mencher marvel at the mind’s ability to infer emotional information from the abstract sounds that are present in music.  Somehow our brains are so attuned to emotions that they are able to infer emotional information from even abstract auditory input.

Although this podcast piqued my interest, I found the amount of information it provided rather limited.  I would like to understand the complexities of emotional reaction to music further.  I would especially like to know more about why listening to sad music can be so pleasurable.  Often I have found myself drawn to sad music, finding it cathartic even when I am feeling happy.  It is odd that I would feel happier after listening to sad music than after listening to a cheerful song.  I suspect that there is more at play here than the hormone prolactin, although it is interesting to note its role.
         Another interesting part of this podcast was the explanation of the role of expectation in the enjoyment of music. I have found this to ring true in my music listening. Often when I first listen to a new album, even from one of my favourite artists, I am slightly displeased.  I feel somewhat disoriented, and apathetic about the work.  Upon listening to the album a second, then a third time my appreciation for the music grows and I find myself waiting for certain favourite moments.  I will play the passage leading up to those moments repeatedly. The “high point” is not satisfying on its own, which supports the idea that the pleasure of music is in the moments of anticipation.  Has anyone else experienced this?

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