February 13, 2020

Pleasant surprises — the link between exceeded expectations and musical pleasure

A recent study provides evidence that we gain pleasure when music is better than we expected. We take a look at how music gives us pleasure (and just as importantly, how it doesn’t).

How music surprises us

In a study at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, researchers used machine learning to quantify the uncertainty and surprise of 80,000 chords in US Billboard pop songs. What they found was that there were high pleasure ratings when they deviated substantially from their expectations of what chords came next, whether the person was relatively or highly uncertain to begin with.

Here are some other important factors behind the study:

  • Memories: to account for memories a participant might have around a song, the song was stripped of its recognizable elements like lyrics and melody.
  • Nucleus Accumbens: this region of the brain plays a big role in processing motivation, aversion and reward (among other things). The MRIs in the study found this area was associated with the uncertainty aspect but not the surprise.
  • Pleasure: the findings suggest the nucleus accumbens might not fully account for why or how we derive pleasure from music and that our expectations play an important role.

If you’re interested to learn more in detail, you can watch a video explaining the study here.

What is Musical Anhedonia?

We’re going to be upfront, this particular Analysis stemmed from one team member that has a pronounced lack of interest in music (though necessarily dislike) but was genuinely moved by a song — perhaps for the first time ever. That song? It was Charlie Puth and Whiz Khalifa’s live rendition of “See You Again,” performed in tribute to the late Kobe Bryant at Staples Center. Given the fact this team member normally doesn’t talk (much less gush) about a musical event in this way, let’s just say it led to some poking around the Internet. Ok let’s just go out and say it, Eugene has musical anhedonia.

Musical Anhedonia is the inability to experience pleasure from music. It can either be a structural difference (your brain just doesn’t value music that way reward-wise) or as a symptom of something else such as hearing loss with age that deadens the impact of music or even depression where those with it have trouble deriving pleasure from many things in life.

This isn’t to say the eye-opening experience was a reversal of musical anhedonia. After all, it was due to a combination of a popular song, a heartfelt performance, the ambiance of a live event and a tragic emotional context. If you’re interested, Charis and Eugene further discuss musical anhedonia on episode 109 of Making It Up.

The Takeaway

“On one hand, our results could be applied to assist composers or even computers in writing music,” says Vincent K.M Cheung, one of the authors of the study on expectations and music. “On the other, algorithms could be developed to predict musical trends and how well a song would do based on its structure. The possibilities are endless.” For people who don’t create music (or algorithms for that matter), you can rejoice knowing that it’s perfectly fine even if you don’t like music at all. In fact, 3-5% of the world doesn’t. It’s a reminder that there are many pathways to move us emotionally so long as we are open to the experience. So with that, we’ll leave off by saying you should keep seeking out uncertainty if you’re already doing so or better yet, surprise yourself.

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