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The Importance of Expectation in Music

Thinking Fast and SlowThinking Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman, is a good book.

Thinking fast, or System 1 as he calls it, is your intuition. It’s quick, resourceful, and prone to mistakes which we often call biases.

Thinking slow, or system 2, is you.

System 1 is automatic, you can’t turn it off, and it will spit information at you even if you’re busy trying to do something else. System 1 makes you jump at loud noises, it tells you what the expression is on someone’s face, it tells you that something going on in the outside world is worth taking notice of.

Everything you see, touch, smell, hear, or experience from the “outside” is fed through system 1 first. System 1 likes to keep its own version of the world, it makes predictions about what will come next, and it likes patterns and regularity. If a prediction made by system 1 turns out to be false, an alert is sent to system 2, kicking into gear our more analytical, powerful, energy consuming selves to solve the problem.

The Music of it All

Music is a bunch of patterns. Rhythms and harmonies and progressions. When we listen to a song, our system 1 starts making predictions about what will come next. “This feels like home, it must be in the key of C” “Here comes the guitar solo.” “It’s country, I don’t anticipate any electro-pop synths.”

It does this by using past experiences as guides: “Have we heard this song before?” “Do we understand the genre it’s in?” “Is it in a western scale?” “Do we know the artist?”

If system one can predict the song correctly, chances are it was boring.

If it fails to predict something, it alerts us, system 2.

Anything from a subtle drum fill to a full change of style can call our attention, by breaking our predictions the music becomes interesting, it makes us want to stop and take notice.

You can always have too much of course, if everything’s breaking our predictions constantly it’ll be difficult to follow and too confusing, so there’s a balance between being predictable and novel.

Think about this a little the next time you need to work or study, if you need to use your brain, chances are you’ll be better off listening to boring monotonous music. Otherwise you’ll be distracted when your system 1 starts getting lost and sending you alerts. Even if you try to ignore it or simply refuse to admit it, the moment you turn your focus to the music is the moment you’ve lost focus on what you were doing.

Music’s all about establishing patterns and then selectively breaking them, masterful composers and musicians know how to effectively lead us somewhere, to give us a hint of one direction (Not the band!), and then take us somewhere else. System 1 & 2 might help explain why these changes bring us such enjoyment, and why a simple or repetitive song is good while we’re mentally occupied but boring to actually focus on.

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