Rambling on – 8. What’s next?

i. I want to look inside a listening head, or brain, because that’s where the action is when Ramblin’ is playing. There’s no music without the listener’s attention, or without what he or she brings to the musical moment. Much of what happens in the brain remains elusive. But what we do know establishes that listening to music is active. And in more than one way.

Phrenology’s pre-neuroscience view of music’s place in the brain (wikimedia commons)

That is obvious to some extent. Muzak, designed not to be listened to, is hardly heard – and may be perceived as offensively unmusical when it is, certainly by me. Ornette Coleman’s music, whatever one makes of it, feels like the antithesis of muzak. While you listen, it holds your attention like little else. And the Coleman enthusiast (me again) will feel that someone who denies its musical qualities is not listening properly.

There’s an assumption there: that the unconvinced subject is capable of listening “properly”. In a way, that’s guaranteed for a human with a normal hearing apparatus, brain and nervous system. There are things brains can extract from, or perhaps impose on, a sound stream that come as much from the processing as from the original vibrations. That’s true for rhythm. Try not hearing an evenly ticking clock as sounding out “tick-tock”: the alternating beats come entirely from the brain. It’s true for harmony, built from pitch perception. Perfectly tempered tones can fit intervals defined by mathematical ratios in a scheme of Pythagorean mathematical beauty. But we hear harmony when the tones deviate, sometimes by quite a distance, from the ideal scheme. Which is just as well as Ornette’s deviate, intentionally, more than most.

And the brain also takes a continuous stream of sound and breaks it up – into a perception of different instruments playing simultaneously, and into individual notes, patterns and contours of notes, and melodies, that unfold uniquely over time. One of the similarities between music and language is that it is the brain’s analysis of the sound that discloses the structure of phrases, without which both music and speech are unintelligible. Again, the phrase structure of the players here is crucial to their musical intentions. There’s another connection to make there too. Coleman, and critics, frequently say he is after a vocal quality, part of which is the minute adjustments to phrasing and intonation that give a spoken as well as musical phrase its particular inflection.

All these things are somehow in the sound, but only discernible when it is perceived by a brain with the right capabilities. They are there partly because of innate capacity to respond to sound, and to changes in sound. Much of the musical structure any brain builds is learnt, though. We learn how to appreciate the music we are exposed to as our brains develop, at the expense it seems of foregoing the potential to hear the music of other cultures. Although we may enjoy the “sound of surprise” in the classic comment about jazz, we have a hard time enjoying music that has less familiar ingredients.

Thinking about that enjoyment prompts consideration of the second dimension in which the listening brain is active. The hearing listener, like a person paying attention to any other sensation, is constantly generating small hypotheses about what sound is coming next – micro-predictions about the tone of the next note and when it will be heard, about how a phrase will end, or what sequence will follow to begin the shape of the next.

And that is surely bound up, somehow, with the pleasure.

ii. That’s not a new idea. Tension and release is one of the best known models of how music, an ineluctably time-based art, “works”. Something happens. It raises an expectation. The next musical event doesn’t quite meet it (raising tension). Then the next, or one soon after, releases it. The satisfaction of making a prediction that finally turns out to be right is enhanced by the teasing delay. Cadences, harmonic or rhythmic, are held to work like this.

It’s a bit of a have-your-cake-and-eat it theory when it comes to reward. There is pleasure, apparently, in having an expectation met: also when it isn’t. So it’s not immediately clear how a piece of music would not fit this explanatory framework. Still, it is a commonplace of music criticism, and advice for music-makers. The internet has hundreds of mini-guides for composers cataloguing all the ways of setting up and relieving tension in sound.

The general contribution of brain training that allows one to generate ideas about what is coming next was summarised in Robert Jourdain’s Music, The Brain and Ecstasy 25 years ago. Jourdain is much preoccupied with “deep” structure as the acme of musical expression, although his definition of what this means is a bit elusive. He also says in passing that it is something absent from Ornette Coleman’s work because it is “free jazz”, but we won’t hold that against him. His basic standpoint is still useful.

The brain tackles the complexity of incoming musical sound first of all by simplification, he says. And that is achieved not by passive hearing but by active listening. “The cerebral cortex… searches for familiar devices and patterns in music. Listening is led by anticipation. Even when a piece is entirely new to our ears, we make sense of it by perceiving constituent parts that we already know well.”

That familiarity evokes an expectation that assumes the future is likely to resemble the past, musically speaking. “Past” here might refer to the long evolutionary past: we have developed the ability to organise incoming sound in certain ways before birth. It is just something our species can do. But the human brain, whose flexibility exceeds any others we know about, is also superbly adapted for learning through hearing, as through the other senses. So “past” also takes in the lifetime experience of music up to the point when the listener to Ramblin’ is hearing the first notes of the piece. Then, as Jourdain puts it later on, “grasping a moment of music… commences with a kind of fleeting hypothesis that is confirmed or disconfirmed; every subtle mismatch is countered by adjustments to the next anticipation. We perceive music only so well as we can predict what’s coming.”

Now we are talking about very different timescales. It may have been developed over the span a species has existed, or a lifetime, but this is moment-to-moment expectation, and the brain is dealing in small fractions of a second. This is why we resort to imprecise phrases like “behind the beat” to describe differences in timing usually too small to record by notation. The very smallest musical events – a sudden accent from the drummer, a minute delay at the end of a phrase, a melodic twist that departs from the learned statistical norm – can raise or contradict an expectation.

So this is all very different from the expectations I now have when I am going to listen to Ramblin’ for the umpteenth time. There are a good clutch of moments I look forward to, that I know I will enjoy, as I contemplate the way the sounds will unfurl. They come to mind pretty easily now. But this is not the kind of anticipation musicologists are talking about when they discuss tension and release as a key to musical pleasure. The learning that my musical brain has laid down to have the pleasing expectations I hold when I start Ramblin’ again, and the reliable delight when those expectations are met, may contribute to the pleasure I get from listening to it, and to other, still unfamiliar music. But the micro-anticipations that are in play during the actual, active listening, are repeatable even when the piece is thoroughly familiar. They have become engrained in my listening habits, without any obvious trace except that I do really like what I hear when I hear Ramblin’. The micro-anticipations arise anew, even though I know what’s coming next, and inform how I hear each finely-strung moment as the same happily reprised sequence of sounds moves down the well-trodden timeline.

That’s one idea to explore further to fathom the sources of musical pleasure, and one author, David Huron, has done so at book length. His Sweet Anticipation (2006) examines this notion in great detail and is worth a proper look. I was going to do that to finish this week’s post, but am still re-reading and digesting, so it’ll get another piece to itself I think.

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