Predictability and Uncertainty in the Pleasure of Music: A Reward for Learning?

J Neurosci. 2019 Nov 20;39(47):9397-9409. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0428-19.2019. Epub 2019 Oct 21.


Music ranks among the greatest human pleasures. It consistently engages the reward system, and converging evidence implies it exploits predictions to do so. Both prediction confirmations and errors are essential for understanding one's environment, and music offers many of each as it manipulates interacting patterns across multiple timescales. Learning models suggest that a balance of these outcomes (i.e., intermediate complexity) optimizes the reduction of uncertainty to rewarding and pleasurable effect. Yet evidence of a similar pattern in music is mixed, hampered by arbitrary measures of complexity. In the present studies, we applied a well-validated information-theoretic model of auditory expectation to systematically measure two key aspects of musical complexity: predictability (operationalized as information content [IC]), and uncertainty (entropy). In Study 1, we evaluated how these properties affect musical preferences in 43 male and female participants; in Study 2, we replicated Study 1 in an independent sample of 27 people and assessed the contribution of veridical predictability by presenting the same stimuli seven times. Both studies revealed significant quadratic effects of IC and entropy on liking that outperformed linear effects, indicating reliable preferences for music of intermediate complexity. An interaction between IC and entropy further suggested preferences for more predictability during more uncertain contexts, which would facilitate uncertainty reduction. Repeating stimuli decreased liking ratings but did not disrupt the preference for intermediate complexity. Together, these findings support long-hypothesized optimal zones of predictability and uncertainty in musical pleasure with formal modeling, relating the pleasure of music listening to the intrinsic reward of learning.SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT Abstract pleasures, such as music, claim much of our time, energy, and money despite lacking any clear adaptive benefits like food or shelter. Yet as music manipulates patterns of melody, rhythm, and more, it proficiently exploits our expectations. Given the importance of anticipating and adapting to our ever-changing environments, making and evaluating uncertain predictions can have strong emotional effects. Accordingly, we present evidence that listeners consistently prefer music of intermediate predictive complexity, and that preferences shift toward expected musical outcomes in more uncertain contexts. These results are consistent with theories that emphasize the intrinsic reward of learning, both by updating inaccurate predictions and validating accurate ones, which is optimal in environments that present manageable predictive challenges (i.e., reducible uncertainty).

Keywords: computational modeling; esthetics; music; predictive processing; reward.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Acoustic Stimulation / methods
  • Adolescent
  • Auditory Perception / physiology*
  • Female
  • Forecasting
  • Humans
  • Learning / physiology*
  • Male
  • Music / psychology*
  • Pleasure / physiology*
  • Random Allocation
  • Reward*
  • Uncertainty*
  • Young Adult

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