Seeking Patterns

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

We are pattern-seeking mammals. We are uncomfortable with unanswered questions, and discontent with the apparent randomness of the world around us. We look for familiar images in clouds, stereotype groups of people, categorize things of nature, see faces in inanimate objects, latch on to conspiracy theories, match objects and colors, decode languages, and find comfort in easy resolutions in literature and film. The impulse to locate (and fabricate) order can be traced to the formative stages of humanity. Our ancestors’ survival depended greatly on their ability to detect patterns in sense data. Snap judgments of hunters and other tribespeople determined whether they would pursue or flee, explore or hide.

Rather than leaving us, the hunter instinct has expanded into all conceivable areas. Nearly every moment of our waking life is spent making quick decisions, classifying information and uncovering (or inventing) structure in observable phenomena. We derive safety and stability from the order we discern, and are attracted to things displaying overt patterns. This is partly why we are drawn to music.

According to science writer Philip Ball, around ninety-four percent of musical selections lasting more than a few seconds contain recurring material—and that only includes verbatim repeats. This calculation applies to music as disparate as electronica and Inuit throat singing. Repetition is among music’s most defining elements, and one that helps us distinguish musical sounds from other audible stimuli. Far from being a source of boredom or irritation, repetitious phrases, relentless rhythms and recurring melodies can be an endless source of enjoyment. They satisfy a primal need.

David Huron, a researcher in music cognition, has connected the pleasing patterns of music to instincts implanted in us by evolution. As noted, the ability to develop and act upon expectations is fundamental to survival. In all animals, survival rate is proportional to accuracy of anticipation: the more correct the assessment, the more advantageous the response. When accurate, gut feelings lead toward prey and away from danger. We have acquired this mechanism of rewarding good predictions. With patterns comes predictability, and with predictability comes pleasure. Guessing right is utterly gratifying. Musical repetition caters to this tendency.

The fact that repetitious music gives us satisfaction is evidenced in the genres that become popular, as well as those that linger on the margins. In the West and elsewhere, tonal music—in its multitudinous forms—is the most agreeable branch of the art form. It encompasses blues and rock, Baroque and Classical, folksongs and lullabies, ragas and marches. Such genres have almost universal appeal. In contrast, atonal music, avant-garde jazz, noise music and other postmodern approaches reach far smaller audiences. They deliberately dispose of conventions and challenge musical expectations, thereby eliminating most of what attracts the average listener to music in the first place. These styles are not without internal logic or a degree of self-styled repetition; but they do not pander to our evolutionary longings.

It is possible to overstate the delight gained from musical patterns. Pleasure is accentuated or diminished depending on one’s affinity, disdain or indifference for specific music. But the general assessment holds: we desire the predictability music provides.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

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One thought on “Seeking Patterns

  1. Pingback: Music and musings – Pavitra Opines

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