Wednesday, February 10, 2010

In Defense of Difficulty -- the Music Edition

I was hoping to say that I’m relieved to be done with my thoughts about difficulty—and I am, kinda. But my notes about difficulty, like my thoughts about literary influence, boil down to the way(s) we process stimuli, or in some cases the way we don’t or refuse to process those stimuli. And since I’ve long had a lay interest in neuroscience, stumbling across this paper by researchers at the University of London has me threading a new strand of information into my thinking.

As it turns out, perhaps not unexpectedly, the act of listening to music is really an act of neural prediction.

Here are the researchers’ conclusions:

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.

Our ability to predict sequences of notes, harmonies, and so on are predicated on our previous listening habits. Jonah Lehrer points out that because he listens to Bruce Springstein his brain is very good at predicting the melodies of John Melancamp (I’ll leave it to you to decide whether or not that’s an enviable talent). But real pleasure from music requires surprise, that is, what strikes us as pretty—symmetrical chord structures and melodies, for instance—are really design to lull us into the safety of predictability before we encounter some startling dissonance, and in the unsettling back and forth between harmony and dissonance, we derive pleasure.

Beavis and Butthead put it differently: “Most of the song has to suck for that part to be good”—or something to that effect.

“For the human mind,” says musicologist Leonard Meyer, "such states of doubt and confusion are abhorrent. When confronted with them, the mind attempts to resolve them into clarity and certainty." And so we wait, expectantly, through Beethoven’s String Quartet in C-sharp minor, say, for the resolution of E major, by which Beethoven's established pattern is completed. This nervous anticipation, says Meyer, "is the whole raison d'etre of the passage, for its purpose is precisely to delay the cadence in the tonic."
The uncertainty makes the feeling. Music is a form whose meaning depends upon its violation.

The famous debut of Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring in Paris in 1913 is a pretty dramatic test case of the impact of violation of expectations. If you don’t know the piece—an avant guard ballet—it is, upon first listen, at least the first listen, intensely dissonant.

What’s famous about the debut is that when well-healed Parisians heard the opening discordant tones they flew into a frenzy. Literally, a riot ensued. People beat each other with umbrellas, tore up theater chairs, punched and slapped each other, and pulled each other’s hair. Needless to say, the debut didn’t last terribly long. Stravinsky was escorted from the stage, as were the dancers and musicians. The threats to Stravinsky were taken very literally, and he returned home to Russia as quickly as he could.

Legend of the riot spread through Paris, and a year later Stravinsky was invited back to Paris to perform Rite of Spring again. This time the house was filled with excited gossip-lovers waiting for the next riot to break out. But this time, instead of responding to the dissonance, the audience heard the Romantic melodies built under the dissonance, and instead of chasing Stravinsky out of town, the audience carried him on their shoulders. A hero was born.

So what was the difference between the first performance and the second?

Turns out that the answer lies in the auditory cortex. Four of the five senses (smell being the exception) process information through a separate designated cortex. The point of the cortex is to sift through the information it receives in search of familiar patterns. When it discovers some familiarity, it passes the filtered information on quietly. In the event it doesn’t find a pattern, it sends along with the information a signal to panic.

The dissonance of The Rite Spring made it impossible for the first audience to hear anything else, and so their brains received a signal to freak out. For the second audience, just the foreknowledge that they were going to hear dissonance prepared their brains to cut through the overload and hear the patterns beneath it.

And here’s the not so surprising link to the pleasures of difficulty, as put by Lehrer in his (remarkable) book Proust was a Neuroscientist:

Before a pattern can be desired by the brain, it must play hard to get. Music only excites us when it makes our auditory cortex struggle to uncover its order. If the music is too obvious, if its patterns are always present, it is annoyingly boring. This is why composers introduce the tonic note in the beginning of the song and then studiously avoid it until the end. The longer we are denied the pattern we expect, the greater the emotional release when the pattern returns, safe and sound. Our auditory cortex rejoices. It has found the order it has been looking for.


  1. In reading (and re-reading) your post, I kept coming back to this statement: “But real pleasure from music requires surprise, that is, what strikes us as pretty—symmetrical chord structures and melodies, for instance—are really designed to lull us into the safety of predictability before we encounter some startling dissonance, and in the unsettling back and forth between harmony and dissonance, we derive pleasure.”

    While this rang (to use a musical cliché) true in some instances—Shostakovich came immediately to mind—in other cases, thinking back on my own musical listening experiences, the pleasure I find in certain pieces didn’t seem to fit the model you describe. And this is particularly so with music I listen to again and again: I think of Bach’s Art of the Fugue, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and I think, too, of John Metcalf’s Mapping Wales and Cello Symphony, all of which, for me, bear repeated listening and still offer up their magic.

    So, back to the Magic Carpet I went to see what more I could learn. And lo! The Magic Carpet did not disappoint. Indeed, a subsequent post on Jonah Lehrer’s site offered a clue. He quotes a response he received from Alex Rehding, a Professor of Music at Harvard:

    “If we derive pleasure from anticipating potential connections - and especially being surprised by thwarted expectations - then it becomes difficult to explain why we would want to listen to a piece more than once: the novelty factor wears off, the uncertainty factor becomes less pronounced. In principle, the piece should get less interesting each time we hear it. Experience, however, shows that this is not the case: we greatly enjoy re-hearing familiar pieces.”

    Rehding goes on to say, “Why are we still listening to Bach's fugues, or Beethoven's symphonies, or Kind of Blue?” (By the way, I would include Kind of Blue on a list of pieces that, for me, bear many repeated listenings.) “What is it about these particular soundwaves that allows them to evade the corticofugal boredom? I'd suggest that their place in the canon is inseparable from their ambiguity - their ability to encourage a multiplicity of interpretations - so that new listens reveal new elements to listen for. In other words, we are continually surprised by their sounds, by the capacity of the music to subvert our expectations. Frank Kermode famously argued that literature worked the same way: What makes a novel or poem immortal is its complex indeterminacy, the way every reader discovers in the same words a different story. The same book manages to inspire two completely different conclusions. But there is no right interpretation. If there were - if there was only one way to read Hamlet - then the words would be far less interesting. The art that endures is the art that never loses its capacity to surprise.”

    Now, Rehding isn’t rejecting the notion of surprise, but it does seem to me he moves beyond harmony vs. dissonance as the sole occasion for surprise. As in the case of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring: the first audience was surprised (dismayed, it would seem), because it could not find a pattern at all. (And may I digress to say, how I love to think of an audience like that, so invested in the music as to riot in response.) The second audience was enabled to get past that and hear to the next level of “complex indeterminacy.” Perhaps the Rite of Spring continues to endure because of that indeterminacy: even once every note of it is known, there is still something new to discover.

  2. I find the patterns in Andrew Lloyd Webber's music infinitely pleasing - even if it is true that it is the structure that elicits my response.

  3. Lots to ponder here. My son is very interested in music theory and has pages of charts and chord progressions that are indecipherable to me, I'll be interested in his take on the effect of being able to predict the notes of a composition.

    I do know that certain types of music (Broadway musicals come to mind) often have a key change at just the right moment to make the song have even greater impact. I don't know whether I anticipate that key change or not, but perhaps I do and that is what makes it so satisfying.

    And I must point out that it's a rare piece that references Igor Stravinsky, Bruce Springsteen, and Beavis & Butthead.

  4. This enjoyable post makes me think of suspended chords. What makes a suspended chord work is precisely the fact that it is an unexpected detour prior to moving toward a stable note in the harmony. Rather like having an imminent kiss interrupted. How much sweeter the culmination which comes after being made to wait.


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