While music can often seem (at least to the outsider) like a labyrinth of intricate patterns – it’s art at its most mathematical – it turns out that the most important part of every song or symphony is when the patterns break down, when the sound becomes unpredictable. If the music is too obvious, it is annoyingly boring, like an alarm clock. (Numerous studies, after all, have demonstrated that dopamine neurons quickly adapt to predictable rewards. If we know what’s going to happen next, then we don’t get excited.) This is why composers introduce the tonic note in the beginning of the song and then studiously avoid it until the end. The longer we are denied the pattern we expect, the greater the emotional release when the pattern returns, safe and sound. That is when we get the chills.
To demonstrate this psychological principle, the musicologist Leonard Meyer, in his classic book Emotion and Meaning in Music (1956), analyzed the 5th movement of Beethoven’s String Quartet in C-sharp minor, Op. 131. Meyer wanted to show how music is defined by its flirtation with – but not submission to – our expectations of order. To prove his point, Meyer dissected fifty measures of Beethoven’s masterpiece, showing how Beethoven begins with the clear statement of a rhythmic and harmonic pattern and then, in an intricate tonal dance, carefully avoids repeating it. What Beethoven does instead is suggest variations of the pattern. He is its evasive shadow. If E major is the tonic, Beethoven will play incomplete versions of the E major chord, always careful to avoid its straight expression. He wants to preserve an element of uncertainty in his music, making our brains beg for the one chord he refuses to give us. Beethoven saves that chord for the end.
According to Meyer, it is the suspenseful tension of music (arising out of our unfulfilled expectations) that is the source of the music’s feeling. While earlier theories of music focused on the way a noise can refer to the real world of images and experiences (its “connotative” meaning), Meyer argued that the emotions we find in music come from the unfolding events of the music itself. This “embodied meaning” arises from the patterns the symphony invokes and then ignores, from the ambiguity it creates inside its own form. “For the human mind,” Meyer writes, “such states of doubt and confusion are abhorrent. When confronted with them, the mind attempts to resolve them into clarity and certainty.” And so we wait, expectantly, for the resolution of E major, for Beethoven’s established pattern to be completed. This nervous anticipation, says Meyer, “is the whole raison d’etre of the passage, for its purpose is precisely to delay the cadence in the tonic.” The uncertainty makes the feeling – it is what triggers that surge of dopamine in the caudate, as we struggle to figure out what will happen next. And so our neurons search for the undulating order, trying to make sense of this flurry of pitches. We can predict some of the notes, but we can’t predict them all, and that is what keeps us listening, waiting expectantly for our reward, for the errant pattern to be completed. Music is a form whose meaning depends upon its violation.