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Alex Bäcker's Wiki / What music is
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What music is

Page history last edited by Alex Backer, Ph.D. 14 years, 11 months ago

Marvin Minsky wrote about why we like music back in 1981. In that paper, Minsky does not mention predictability at all. In fact, he talks about how 'we tolerate (emphasize mine) music's relentless rhythmic pulse'. As we shall see, rhythmicity and predictability is precisely what we cherish in music, not something we merely tolerate.


This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession by Daniel J. Levitin comes closer. Yet Levitin provides no real explanation for what constitutes music or why we like it: he mentions predictability seems to play a role, but he also mentions that the best songs don't seem all that predictable. Music has a Goldilocks problem: we like music that's not too predictable, nor too unpredictable, but just right. We need a better definition of just what just right is.


If music was simply about predictability, then we'd like uniform sequences of tones, or even uniform tones. But we don't. Yet things start making sense when you recall that brains are sensitive to change. Music, then, is predictable change. In other words, music is recursive pattern of patterns, a pattern of patterns of patterns of...Music is P, where P=a pattern of P.


Our brain has evolved to predict our environment. It is a hierarchical pattern predictor. To this end, it has evolved to derive pleasure out of correct predictions. The more predictable patterns there are, the more of our brain that will experience prediction confirmation, and the more likely we are to like the music.


Thus, we see history's most beloved melodies, from Mozart to The Beatles to Lloyd Webber, are very simple, yet not quite. They contain predictable rhythms, simple sequences of notes, and sequences of sequences of notes (e.g. changes of tonality, changes of instruments).


Music's rhythmic and melodic structure contains very predictable phrases, and by confirming our predictions (particularly when we know the song), generates reinforcement. The limited repertoire of musical phrases compatible with our cultural standards (dominants, subdominants, etc.), together with the predictable structure of most music, from African rhythms to modern pop songs with their repeated chorus lines, make a melody easy to learn, which then generates expectations upon hearing it again, which when met cause positive reinforcement. Indeed, simple melodies will calm even a newborn baby.


This theory assumes innate positive reinforcement from seeing predictions confirmed. This can be tested by measuring crying cessation or other behavioral manifestations of comfort and discomfort in infants during presentation of predictable rhythmic tunes versus arhythmic unpredictable tunes which skip beats, etc.


July 16, 2003; expanded October 28, 2007




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