A review of the book Sweet Anticipation: Music And The Psychology Of Expectation by David Huron.

I learned about this book from a reference in Matthew Hurley’s excellent book Inside Jokesin which he tackles the age old question of "what is humor?" Unlike Hurley’s, work most theories of humor, in my opinion, are more observations of humor and not really a theory of some active mechanism which explains why it exists. David Huron’s Sweet Anticipation is a superb example of answering just this kind of hard question, in this case applied to the equally tricky topic of music. Many of the elements of Hurley’s humor theory are foreshadowed in Huron’s book including a pretty sophisticated foundation for a theory of humor. It may seem that the two topics are unrelated, but Huron shows that there are common themes in both humor and music. Not only does he use humor as an example of other phenomena with the operating characteristics of music, but he explicitly explores humor in music itself. It’s not a common occurrence but the fact that a piece of music can make one laugh is indeed an interesting fact. Rather than ignoring these edge cases, Huron thinks that musical humor may be fundamental to the mechanisms of music in general. He goes so far as to claim that a good test (as good as anything) whether a listener "gets" a musical performance/style/genre is whether the listener finds extant musical jokes funny.

The reason humor and music are linked, according to Huron, is that they both involve expectation. Huron makes a case that predicting the future is valuable to evolving organisms and mechanisms arise to maximize the utility of predictions. In the case of humor the positive feedback of finding something funny is an incentive to correct faulty mental models as they’re forming (Hurley recognizes this as important and develops it extensively into his book).

Huron makes many interesting points. For example, he offers good evidence that musical elements are not necessarily innate and that acculturation is required to truly understand unfamiliar music. He points out this is harder to do as adults. He talks about people with "perfect pitch" and uses credible research findings to expose the mechanisms at work and, happily for me personally, offer some reasons why such a talent may not always be optimal. He cites many interesting studies that relate studies of natural hearing physiology to musical phenomena. In fact, it’s worth noting that this book is commendably scientific in its approach. Music seems like a subjective experience and I would guess this has afforded some latitude to music theorists of the past. Huron, however, really sticks to credible and corroborated research. Just reading about all the interesting studies that have been done in acoustics, audition, hearing, ethnomusicology, psychology, etc, was reason enough to read the book.

I have read many music theory books and have struggled as a novice musician to make sense out of what was going on. Sweet Anticipation has been the most cogent discussion I have yet encountered on why music is the way it is. For example, I have always wondered what a "key" was. Sure, a piece in the key of C uses the C major scale. Sort of. Pretty much. Usually. Unless it doesn’t. To me a very precise non-circular definition was always hard to pin down. But Huron shows exactly what a key is: a statistically likely set of pitches. He goes on to calculate, enumerate, and plot these probabilities. That is very interesting to see. If you were going to program a computer to compose music, this book would be the first place to start. This does not mean that Huron is looking for a formulaic approach to composition. Indeed, he knows that "breaking the rules" is one of the hallmarks of great music precisely because you’re not expecting the rules to be broken. Understanding music and the mechanisms that make it enjoyable do not, in my opinion, make music any less enjoyable. This is an excellent book and should be of particular interest to anyone who has a keen fascination with the power of music.