The Science of Expectation

The science of expectation is characterized as a biological adaptation with “specialized physiological structures” that dictate when and how we experience a certain emotion such as surprise, agony, or delight (Huron 3). These emotions are evolutionarily important in that they motivate behavioral choices in accordance to what one predicts the most successful outcome will be. While expectation can be studied culturally through a multitude of scenes such as the universal game of peek-a-boo; a surprise wedding proposal; or the abrupt shutting of a door, it can also be studied most easily through the lense of music. Although not intrinsically simple, music provides a universal basis of study without any preconceived cultural notions that would dictate surprise. Thus, it is fundamentally a blank slate, and many other variables can be ignored. Entertainment in general is built upon the power of manipulation. Musicians, playwrights, and performers all have respective mediums which they use to create and manipulate an audience’s expectations. Music, however, is arguably the most difficult medium to work with because “its capabilities for representing the natural world [are] constrained” (Huron 2). Poets and playwrights may generate agonizing emotions by re-creating a recognizably sad scene, but musicians must condense these emotions into something still tangible, but through nonrepresentational sounds. 

Delayed gratification, defined in terms of musical expectation, occurs when an audience member complies completely with the performer’s will to manipulate their expectations for the most profound listening effect. To experience complete serendipity, observers of the arts must submit themselves completely to the possible manipulation or deceit of their expectations. When all preconceptions are disposed of, the audience member becomes malleable, and entertainers then have the ability to mold their perception of events and to evoke emotions such as agony, awe, and even laughter. The barrier that holds the common person at bay from this mental state of malleability, however, is patience and attention. Biologically, humans are inherently adaptive creatures; and when societal norms change, the malleability of our brains allow us to change accordingly, sometimes to our benefit and sometimes not. This particular societal change in the accessibility of technology and information has interfered with our ability to feel comfortable placing our exalted system of cues and rewards (expectation) into the hands of a performer for the purpose of alteration. Essentially, we are treading
in the unstable waters of information surplus, which negatively impacts our already obdurate persistence in immediately responding to stimuli instead of submitting ourselves to expectational manipulation.  I believe it is important to first define this inverse relationship between technological and informational surplus, and attention in more common, non-musical terms so that it may be explored in greater musical detail later.

    History has provided ample supporting evidence that time periods which foster a certain degree of affluence usually also deliver chaos and instability. Take for example, the gilded age: a period in time coined and satirized by Mark Twain as “an era of extreme social instability masked by a thin gold gilding” (Twain). Although this period of time was flocked with industrial superpowers such as John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie, the venerable Henry Thoreau's statement regarding affluence in the transcendentalist era still applies. Thoreau believed that “most of the luxuries and many of the so-called comforts of life are not only indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind” (Thoreau 25). This belief is mimicked by George Maslow in his paper titled “Hierarchy of Needs,” where he portrays the fundamental hierarchy of personal growth and progression.  His hierarchy is often represented in the form of a pyramid, depicting human’s most fundamental needs of survival at the bottom and culminating with the need of self-actualization at the top. With society's’ interests continuing to fall only within the first two categories of the pyramid -a much shallower place to reside compared to the top- our culture has become luxuriously bloated.

Indeed, affluence and ease can provide an immense amount of immediate pleasure. But it “must be noted that pleasure does not trump all other values” (Huron ix). Although “expectations are not the province of music alone,” a parallel may be drawn between social symptoms of affluence specifically in the insistent need for pleasure, and similar musical symptoms (Huron 3). Listeners must morph the entrance of their souls into a shape a performer can work with, or else the inflow of material would be like attempting to fit a cubic object into a spherical hole. Audiences must “learn to be challenged, not simply pampered.” For “the best music is not necessarily music that fills its listeners with pleasure,” but challenges them to new heights of thinking (Huron ix). Furthermore, knowledge, rather than intuition, provides an ample opening for a listener to experience the controlled ecstasy music delivers. Since “culture provides a preeminent environment in which many expectations are acquired and applied . . . the context for predicting future sounds is dominated by cultural norms” (Huron 3).  

    Art can be most accurately characterized by “antifragility,” a term coined by Nassim Nicholas in his book, Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder. While the term fragile is ubiquitous, there is no exact word for the opposite of fragility, a crucial concept in the history and prosperity of music.  “Some things,” such as music, “benefit from shock; they thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors and love adventure, risk, and uncertainty” (Nicholas 3) Musical “errors” differ by culture and are commonly socially contrived. Only through cultural schema have notes garnered intrinsic valence. For example, the roots of counterpoint-the interaction between multiple voices- can be traced back to the middle ages, when music was used predominantly for religious ceremonies and prayers. As the medieval monks looked to expound on their simplistic musical system, they began to add voices on top of one another in a horizontal fashion, creating interwoven melodies between vertical chords. Out of sheer preference, they decided that the parallel 4th and 5th intervals sounded hollow and less pleasing to the ear, so they deemed these “wrong notes”. Subsequently, for the next several centuries, composers were constrained by these schematic preferences. Preceding a musical transition there must be an artist who is willing to step over the boundaries of “wrong,” and redefine what it means to create beautiful music. Antifragility “loves randomness and uncertainty, which also means –crucially- a love of errors, a certain class of errors” (Nicholas 4). Richard Wagner did just that.  Wagner stirred an enormous amount of controversy for his innovative movement into the classical era, which embraced previous ideas from the baroque period, but broke the barrier into fresh and exciting territory. Purists such as Eduard Hanslick, a critic who “championed traditional forms and led the conservative front against Wagnerian innovations” may have regarded Wagner as pervasive for his use of extreme chromaticism and a complex tonality not easily identified with a single key. (Saffle 179) But Wagner was an iconoclast, and due to the antifragility of music, his purposeful “errors” actually improved upon the musical standards and encouraged his listeners to reach a new height of intelligence and a greater threshold of fragility. 

Two interrelated systems that are key in predicting and preparing for the unknown are arousal and attention. “The arousal system controls heart rate, respiration, perspiration, and many other functions associated with movement” (Huron 5). Attention, however is more nuanced, dealing with mental processes of contracting and expanding our filter on the conversations we hear, visual happenings we see, and the words we speak. Both of these systems are highly influenced by anticipation. David Huron in his research book, Sweet Anticipation, states “Arousal and attention levels fluctuate according to both the actual and the anticipated demands of the environment” (Huron 5). The coefficient of danger in this, however, is the mental deconditioning that accompanies being pampered, instead of challenged, by technology and a surplus of information that is modernly available. From an evolutionary standpoint, arousal, attention, and anticipation have all been of vital need in order to sidestep danger. Natural selection has favored those with “the capacity to form accurate expectations about future events” (Huron 3). But modernly, when each day does not bring with it dire circumstances, and life or death is no longer determined by the functionality of these three interconnected symptoms, their presence begins to fade. This poses a threat because of the direct correlation between the strength of anticipation, arousal and attention responses, and emotion. Emotions experienced as a result of anticipation are meant to encourage organisms to pursue behaviors which are normally adaptive and will reap a positive future outcome.  The threat posed by their dull and dwindling presence is that the “emotions accompanying expectations are intended to reinforce accurate prediction, promote appropriate event-readiness, and increase the likelihood of positive outcomes” (Huron 4). These symptoms are not only vital in responding to imminent danger, but also toward an artistic means of reward. Similarly, “Music making taps into these primordial functions to produce a wealth of compelling emotional experiences” (Huron 4). In this way, musicians are able to create a number of pleasurable emotional experiences, including surprise, awe, ‘chills,’ and comfort” (Huron 4). In this intrinsic state of guard and attention fostered by years of living in imminent danger, “the body typically faces a quandary: which of several possible outcomes does one prepare for? In preparing the body and mind for these outcomes, our instincts are depressingly pessimistic” (Huron 6). Huron validates his claim using the analogy of the recurring stress response in responding to a slamming door. He states that “we know the door poses no danger, but the sound of the slamming door provokes a powerful bodily response anyway” (Huron 6).  And while this can be a nuisance, “nature knows best; it is better to respond to a thousand false alarms than to miss a single genuinely dangerous situation,” Drawing a parallel to music, Huron realizes that nature's tendency to overreact provides a golden opportunity for musicians (Huron 6). Huron says that “Composers can fashion passages that manage to provoke remarkably strong emotions using the most innocuous stimuli imaginable” such as the slamming of a door (Huron 6). However with the introduction of modern ease in lifestyle, and the absence of the truly imminent danger that was constantly present in our neanderthal days, our senses toward the minute have been cauterized. Previously, composers may have taken advantage of humans’ highly perceptible response system; but now, we have been numbed to the intricacies in a world where danger is not thwarted by constant attention. Subsequently, through a process similar to natural selection, music has become less proficient (and audiences less receptive) in utilizing musical devices -such as the deceptive cadence- which may have formerly evoked strong and profound emotions, but is now merely innocuous. 

In synops of his comprehensive theory of expectation, dubbed ITPRA, Huron recounts the 5 main response systems which appear chronologically in relation to an event.  Over the grand course of evolution, certain biological processes allowed organisms yet another mechanism to ensure that some future events would more likely occur than others. This concept is called Imagination Response. According to Huron, “The Imagination Response provides the biological foundation for delayed gratification” (Huron 16). With this ability, we are able to make future outcomes emotionally palpable before they actually occur. And “In turn, these feelings motivate changes in behavior that can increase likelihood of a future favorable result” (Huron 8). These vicariously felt feelings may be accompanied by either a negative or positive valence; each will consequently motivate one's actions in accordance to their desired outcome. For example, “you might undertake a difficult journey by imagining the pleasure of being reunited with a loved one” (Huron 8). This concept is used foundationally to set the stage for the science of expectation in musical terms, specifically prolonged expectation or deferred gratification.

As a foundational principle for how expectation is fulfilled and appraised, the Imagination Response preempts other key responses such as the prediction effect, where “listeners experience positive feelings whenever an event is successfully predicted” or imagined (Huron 239). The prediction effect allows the prior theory of imagination to manifest itself musically. In order for the prediction effect to take place, however, listeners must be actively engaged in the imaginary phase of listening and anticipating events before they occur, allowing themselves to become aroused in accordance to their imagination.  Indeed, it is true that while creating predictability, performers “risk the possibility of listeners becoming bored, irritated, or habituated;” if a listener is truly utilizing their imaginary response, however, “they might exploit the prediction effect to create a pleasurable experience” (Huron 240). Most commonly, predictability is created veridically: that is, through repeated listening.  “More than 99 percent of all listening experiences involve listening to musical passages that the listener has heard before” (Huron 241). The surplus of musical content that is available modernly, contrasted by the 5 records one owned 60 years ago, has greatly contributed to how music is approached. AM and FM radio repeatedly fasten a listener to a work that immediately “becomes identified with that single recording - as though the recording itself defines the work” (Huron 241). As a consequence of this ease, novelty -however great a work of composition it is-, is hard to sell. Listening audiences are indirectly being censored to a highly constrained and ignorant view of music. Exposure is such a crucial facet in understanding how music is “organized so that observant or knowledge listeners [are] able to infer future musical events through conscious thought as the music progresses” (Huron 242). Conceptually, this is referred to as Conscious Predictability: where an audience member actively listens for and predicts events based on an educated understanding. The more educated the listener is, the more accurately he will predict events correctly, and the more pleasure he will garner from listening.  Unfortunately, both Veridical familiarity and Conscious predictability are largely ineffective tools for composers to affect the predictability of a work, for “[they] depend principally on the skill and sophistication of the listener” (Huron 234).  For this reason, many composers constrain themselves to Schematic predictability: using a “majority of works that employ familiar instruments, use a familiar scale, follow a familiar meter, play familiar harmonies, and conform to a familiar musical style.” With the presumed intentions of pleasing an audience, “composers will likely . . . [use] the most common pitch successions associated with a particular style or genre,” in western culture, that genre being popular music (Huron 242). The amalgamation of Schematic predictability -the use of familiar cultural form- and Veridical Familiarity has lead to the discounting of thousands of compositional relics that do not adhere to familiar principles. 


While the Imagination Response deals with behavioral motivation prior to an expected event, the Tension Response -the second chronological response system- deals with the stress that “commonly accompanies the rise of anticipatory arousal” (Huron 11).  In other words, “as the arousal and the attention levels move toward an optimum level in anticipation of the outcome, the physiological changes themselves evoke characteristic feeling states” (Huron 11).  Delay is a potent ingredient in the creation of tension. As we have noted before, tension rises in accordance to the prediction of when an event is anticipated to occur. Thus, the tension will increase with prolonged periods of heightened arousal or anticipation.  Due to the brain’s “disposition toward statistical learning, it is likely that the feeling of anticipation is greatest when the probability of an event approaches certainty” (Huron 306). In addition to the strategies used to create predictability noted before, composers may take other more active paths toward familiarizing a listener with their work. Specifically, composers may cater to an especially educated listener by seasoning a composition with hooks that allow for strong anticipatory feelings and conscious predictability. “For western encultured listeners, examples of strong feelings of anticipation include the feeling that a chromatic tone should resolve to a diatonic neighbor, and the feeling that a drum fill should lead to a hypermetric downbeat” (Huron 248). Furthermore, when delay is coupled with anticipation, a listener experiences a high level of certainty that an event will take place and also prolonged levels of arousal in preparation for this event. During this event, however, the when and the where may be reciprocally kept constant. For example, if we are certain that a dominant chord will be followed by a tonic, the variable “when” may be manipulated by the composer to increase stimulation prior to the resolution. In the case of a dominant chord whose “onset begins on the first beat of a 4/4 measure, the most probable points of tonic resolution include the second beat (uppermost), third beat (middle), or the downbeat of the next measure (lowest)” (Huron 306). 




According to Huron, the certainty of what will happen (the resolution to the tonic) balanced by the uncertainty of when leads to a degree of tension. “That is, a slight amount of psychological stress will arise as each moment of possible resolution approaches” (Huron 307). A similar phenomenon arises with the so-called musical suspension. A suspension usually occurs as part of a tonic-dominant progression in which the movement of the tonic pitch precedes the full tonic resolution. In this almost innocuous melodic movement, a cluster of responses are generated. Primarily, “there is a large positive prediction response. The listener’s confident prediction of this moment is realized, accompanied by a high positively valenced predictive reward. At the same time and the formerly dissonant sonority has been replaced by a chord with comparatively low sensory dissonance” (Huron 310). And while resolution to the tonic creates a positive valence by confirming the listener’s anticipations, the preceding note (the suspension) generates a moment of dissonance and prolonged expectation until the tonic is reached. In application, a cadence which contains a suspension drastically increases the strong expectation of returning to the tonic chord, delaying that motion to create a “longer and more intense period of tension” (Huron 314). Delay is therefore a potent factor in manipulating listener’s expectations and influencing the creation of tension. Consistent with each of the other factors of conscious predictability, submitting expectations to the manipulation of delay also requires a highly malleable listener. The listener must be educated enough to believe in the certainty of his expectations: that a resolution will eventually in fact arrive. 

The intentional manipulation of time in a musical phrase is characterized by rubato. While most theorists would suggest that rubato is used solely to signal the closure in musical syntax, Huron advocates otherwise (315). As noted previously, “the effect of delay in music is greatest when applied to the most predictable, stereotypic, or cliched events or passages” (Huron 334). As a result, performers are most likely to stretch musical time based on the predictability of the material to amplify the contrastive valence and evoke greater pleasure at the moment of resolution. Indeed, it is true that for Western-encultured listeners, the most predictable motion in music is the closure from V-I. Therefore, performers will most likely execute rubato signaling this “impending closure” (Huron 316). However, it is important to note that due to societal schemata, melodic closure is often coincidentally coupled with predictability, but the function of a ritardando is solely dependent only on the latter. “The history of western music is replete” with innocuous surprises that may evoke emotions such as laughter, frisson, and awe (Huron 317). These delights are only available to a listener who is observant and knowledgeable enough to infer future events, and whose senses have not been dulled by the cultural disuse of the ITPRA response systems.  

As our tension response systems dull in response to both the over-production of informational and technological stimuli and to the decrease in an evolutionary need to evaluate and qualify situations, we become conditioned to suppress our arousal and attention responses for areas which require these heightened levels of cognitive processing, such as music. In many situations where a listener has become so accustomed to suppressing their “anterior cingulate and prefrontal cortical areas,” (the areas responsible for anticipation and expectation), the listener “may direct no explicit attention to the music, and may show no awareness of the listening act” (Huron 7). In this “stream of conscious listening, the imagination and appraisal components of ITPRA are rare or attenuated” (Huron 310). That is, “the listener is not engaged in consciously imagining various possible future scenarios” (Huron 310). Resultingly, the listener does not build arousal and tension in accordance to what they predict will occur, and the music is less likely to evoke a series of “yearning” or anticipatory feelings which deliver the blissful ecstasy of music. 




Works Cited 

Huitt, W. "Educational Psychology Interactive: Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs." Educational Psychology Interactive: Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. Valdosta State University, n.d. Web. 14 Mar. 2014. <>. 

Huron, David Brian. Sweet Anticipation: Music and the Psychology of Expectation. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2006. Print. 

Saffle, Michael. Richard Wagner: A Guide to Research. New York: Routledge, 2002. Print. 

Taleb, Nassim Nicholas. Antifragile. Random House/Nov: n.p., 2012. Print. 

Thoreau, Henry David, and J. Lyndon Shanley. Walden. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1971. Print. 

Twain, Mark, and Charles Dudley Warner. The Gilded Age; a Tale of Today. New York: Trident, 1964. Print.