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Sweet Anticipation: Music and the Psychology of Expectation

by David Huron
The MIT Press, Bradford Book Series, Cambridge, MA,
476 pp., 108 illus. Trade, $40.00
ISBN: 0-262-08345-0.

Reviewed by Jonathan Zilberg


Sweet Anticipation
is a remarkable book for those scholars interested in the supposedly quantifiable universal relations between music and emotion. It will be of special interest to academics with acutely scientific interests in musical structures and cognitive effects. While it aims to make musicians more aware of the tools they use to create emotional effects, it is more likely to find an audience amongst cognitive scientists interested in evolutionary psychology. Its real audience however should be ethnomusicologists, as becomes particularly clear in the last section of the concluding chapter: "Repercussions for Ethnomusicology: Opening Minds." That being said, I believe that ethnomusicologists and cultural anthropologists will unanimously reject Huron’s criticisms with very good reason and with no shortage of evidence.

Huron’s ITPRA theory is a general theory of expectation based on a psychological theory of musical expectation. Though the author notes that both biology and culture are critical determinants of emotional states induced by music, the theory he develops of expectation in music is trans-cultural, that is universal. Yet the analysis is based entirely on a limited analysis of certain Western musical structures. It will be extremely interesting to see how ethnomusicologists react to this study, if they do, and whether anyone will attempt to test it in starkly different ethnographic settings. Perhaps they will find the ITPRA theory to have a universal application as Huron suggests is the preliminary comparative case for the Scandinavian Sami, the Balinese and the Southern African Pedi people——but I doubt it very much.

Huron’s argument rests on the assumption that the ability to form accurate expectations is an adaptive trait in which emotions serve as amplifying motivations stimulating adaptive behaviors and limiting maladaptive ones. As such it is very much a psychological study of arousal and attention, of expectation and response, and of surprise and predictability. All too predictably however, it will leave the humanist reader, especially cultural anthropologists, and above all ethnomusicologists, not simply cold — but infuriated. So much for sweet anticipation!

Setting aside the humanist objection to Huron’s universality principle, it is an amazing study in its own right because of its heroic attempt at analytic integrity. Yet, this caveat, and the first ten chapters aside, the most interesting and problematic chapter for ethnomusicologists will be Chapter Eleven on genres, schemas and firewalls. This is the chapter in which the ITPRA theory self-destructs in terms of its applicability and certainly in its claims for being a general theory. Significantly, it is only here, two hundred pages into the book, that the author finally defines the all important and liberally applied concept of musical schema, though very briefly as an "expectational ‘set’". The author is clearly not-cognizant of the expansive anthropological literature on the cultural construction of linguistic and cognitive categories. The result is an extraordinarily cursory and impressionistic discussion compared to the analytic discussions that comprise most of the rest of the book. Nevertheless, the notion of schemas as the "cognitive heroes of multiculturalism" is fascinating in its own right and the chapter raises very interesting if severely uninformed questions that have been core debates in the history of anthropology and ethnomusicology that the author seems blithely unaware of.

Ethnomusicology aside and simply put, a theory of general expectation necessarily fails if the conceptual basis for the notion of schema is not solid and if the ITPRA theory cannot be applied across all known schema. Thus the intrinsic nature of schema and the requisite cross-cultural assumptions, all of which are poorly understood and deeply problematic here, should be established at the start. No single instance of the substantial anthropological literature on schema and on language and cognition is referred to and merely two music-related articles are cited. As revisited further below, the fundamental tenets and aims of cultural anthropology and ethnomusicology, the accumulated knowledge about cultural difference and the sustained productive quest for experience and salient knowledge are all splendidly discounted in apparently blissful ignorance.

Huron’s analysis is dependent on a statistical analysis of tone in Western music which is then abstracted to a general theory of cognition which he hypothesizes applies to all cultures. He does do by arguing that the logic of expectation is a universal adaptive trait and that specific musical structures create the same emotional effects across cultures. This is so untenable in cultural anthropology, and is so far outside of the bounds of anthropological knowledge, that it is hardly worthy of comment. But for the sake of argument, let us revisit Huron’s conclusions as they concern ethnomusicology.

The closing discussion questions whether Western ethnomusicologists can ever understand non-Western music. Herein he asks what it means to understand the music of other cultures and claims that we simply do not understand non-Western musical experience, that all we have ultimately are external descriptions of their structures. Huron is simply arguing here that music has to be experienced in culturally congruent ways, never mind that this is in fact the very basis of ethnomusicology. Then he allays ethnomusicologists’ imagined fears of the anti-relativist consequence of ITPRA theory by claiming that because the theory has universal application it rescues ethnomusicology from the dilemma of being able to understand other musical cultures. Again, according to him, the reason why we can discount the problems of acquiring congruent cultural knowledge is because biology acting through Darwinian evolution is the prime determinant of all human experience.

Most provocatively of all, Huron charges that ethnomusicologists "have failed to truly open our minds to the minds of others" and to have acquired the knowledge of how non-Western music is experienced. Nothing could be further from the truth. To make such claims as these is to exhibit a stunning ignorance of the literature. In fact, there are merely thirteen, somewhat obscure or outdated references to studies of music in other cultures. For many decades now, ethnomusicologists have methodically, creatively and intensively experimented with combining and applying anthropological and musicological methods so as to convey deep, enduring and complex knowledge of other cultures’ musical experience. Virtually none of the relevant literature has been used in this study to critically self-reflect upon his universal tonal thesis. In any event, unbeknownst to him, Huron has inadvertently stumbled into Levi-Strauss and his long out-dated binary quest to chart the underlying structure of the human mind. In all this, in the important questions of structure and function, mind and society, linguistic categories and perceptions of reality, music and experience, the book is as phenomenally weak as it might be strong in terms of musicological and psychological analysis.

Perhaps Sweet Anticipation will be of special use to new music practitioners in terms of educating them as to how psychological mechanisms are used in some Western tonal musical genres to evoke specific, supposedly universal emotional responses. Indeed, Huron proposes that musicians should use this knowledge to break through counter-intuitive barriers and add interest and complexity to existing genres. In this, his discussion of modernism in terms of expecting the unexpected in Chapter Sixteen is particularly compelling.

In conclusion, despite its extraordinary weakness anthropologically speaking, Sweet Anticipation is an uncommonly intense and complex book. It will be of acute interest to cognitive scientists and to the most unlikely musician who might share Huron’s surgical interest in statistical patterns and scientific experimentation while disavowing the humanist concern with cultural diversity, experience and thick description. Ultimately, the real anticipatory measure of the book’s success, outside of cognitive science and psychology, will depend on whether any single musician will be inspired by it to set aside intuition and adaptively draw upon the scientific knowledge presented herein to create new forms of emotionally compelling music.



Updated 1st July 2007

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