I am a linguist who loves literature and who is fascinated by science. I quantify randomness. I paint. I travel in a power wheelchair, hoping to capture the ordinary.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

The unexpected and the brain

In an article based on a study entitled "Unsupervised statistical learning underpins computational, behavioural, and neural manifestations of musical expectation", forthcoming in Neuroimage, ScienceDaily notes:

Music has a grammar, which, like language, consists of rules that specify which notes can follow which other notes in a piece of music. According to Pearce: "the question is whether the rules are hard-wired into the auditory system or learned through experience of listening to music and recording, unconsciously, which notes tend to follow others."

The researchers asked 40 people to listen to hymn melodies (without lyrics) and state how expected or unexpected they found particular notes. They simulated a human mind listening to music with two computational models. The first model uses hard-wired rules to predict the next note in a melody. The second model learns through experience of real music which notes tend to follow others, statistically speaking, and uses this knowledge to predict the next note.

The results showed that the statistical model predicts the listeners' expectations better than the rule-based model. It also turned out that expectations were higher for musicians than for non-musicians and for familiar melodies -- which also suggests that experience has a strong effect on musical predictions.
 Read more here.

One song that makes my brain feel a little tweaked by unexpectedness is "Conversations in Silence I":

Conversations In Silence I - Nashville Chamber Orchestra

Another piece that does this by (in my amateurish opinion) using the "end" note as a "beginning" is Schumann's "5 Stücke im Volkston, Op.102: 2. Langsam" (which starts at 3:20 in the video below). This one is much subtler than the one above in its unexpectedness. But it is enough to move me repeatedly.

If the "rules" of music are not "rules" at all, but rather the consolidation of experience, the nature of language, as sister to music ("Double dissociation between rules and memory in music"), seems clear: it is an accumulation of experience, not an imperfect activation of inherent rules. Linguists Joan Bybee and James McClelland argued for an experience-based model for language in their article, "Alternatives to the combinatorial paradigm of linguistic theory based on domain general principles of human cognition."

I wonder, then, if what "moves" us in music is also what "moves" us in language. Proust wrote of the breaking of habit, the intrusion of the unexpected, as the ticket to the richest memories, a cognitive flowering of the senses. Beckett viewed language as "a veil that must be torn apart in order to get at the things (or the Nothingness) behind it," and he wrote of wanting to bore holes in the language, to create something new (or new nothingness) (see Disjecta). And in Beckett's pitted and hole-filled texts, deep within the nothingness, lies a melancholy hopeless hope. It is like trying to think of what might be outside our universe, beyond where the big bang has expanded space.

Sometimes we encode concepts like unexpectedness into our grammars. See Leonard Talmy's work on the notion of "force dynamics" in language, and an article in Cognitive Linguistics on the grammatical marking of social unexpectedness in Spanish, "Quantitative measures of subjectification."

Our (at times perverse?) pleasure in the unexpected, despite our everyday hunger for structural predictability, gives us new eyes, new ears, and yes, over the centuries, new tongues.

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