Academic journal article Music Theory Online

Review of David Huron, Sweet Anticipation

Academic journal article Music Theory Online

Review of David Huron, Sweet Anticipation

Article excerpt

[1] Many composers of modern classical music shudder to have their music described as "accessible," which they consider a euphemism for "suitable for mass consumption" or even "pandering to the masses." Such composers organize their pitches, rhythms, and timbres according to non-traditional systems, usually with complex results (for example, Boulez's use of chord multiplication). It would be difficult, however, to find a composer who would not want her work performed and appreciated, if only by a select few. These few are typically those educated in the sphere of art music, and herein lies the musico-cognitive question: if those who appreciate modern art music are typically performers and scholars-those who approach these pieces by reading them in score and examining their theoretical underpinnings-one may wonder to what degree this music would be comprehensible without such aids. As a composer myself, I approached Sweet Anticipation seeking cognitively- and psychologically-based perspectives on just what kind of organizational structures the listener is capable of perceiving. Of course, having the listener be able to "follow" a piece is not always relevant to a composer's artistic goals, nor are all clearly-organized pieces audibly rewarding. In Sweet Anticipation Huron acknowledges that "there is no requirement that musicians create music that listeners find pleasing or pleasurable . . . Moreover, even if musicians aim to create an overtly pleasing psychological effect, there are many ways of achieving this goal without making use of expectation-related phenomena" (239-240).

[2] Whether or not a composer aims to please, however, she usually seeks an awareness of how her piece will be received by listeners: will the key moments be recognized as such? Will there be a sense of inevitability, a feeling of satisfaction? What will be the role of surprise? Sweet Anticipation explains the way in which many such responses to music are tied to expectation-whether listener predictions are rewarded, to what degree, and when. Beyond the issue of musical expectation, Huron also discusses how particular kinds of sound (such as low-pitched, loud sounds) evoke certain physiological responses (such as fear) due to millennia of evolutionary adaptation. In this review, I will focus on only one listener reaction-what the book describes as satisfaction or pleasure-and what Huron's findings may mean for composers.

[3] Sweet Anticipation describes the evolutionary significance of the human brain being attuned to the near future (59ff): "The capacity to form accurate expectations about future events confers significant biological advantages. Those who can predict the future are better prepared to take advantage of opportunities and sidestep dangers. . . . Accurate expectations are adaptive mental functions that allow organisms to prepare for appropriate action and perception" (3). Given the survival advantage of making accurate expectations, Huron argues that

it would be reasonable for psychological rewards and punishments to arise in response solely to the accuracy of the expectation [italics original] . . . Psychological evidence in support of a predication response is found in the classic work of George Mandler. An abundance of experimental research has affirmed the importance of this response. In fact, this response is considered so important in the extant literature on expectation that it is commonly referred to as the primary affect [italics original] (12-13).(1)

[4] One of Huron's most substantial contributions to the cognitive science of music perception is the application of such general theories of expectation to the realm of musical expectation. It is generally acknowledged that listeners tend to exhibit greater preference for a piece once it becomes familiar, and Huron provides experimental and anecdotal accounts of such observations dating back to Aristotle (131). This penchant for familiar music is often attributed to the so-called "auditory exposure effect" (134ff). …

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