Unexpected Aspects of Expectancy in Music: A Spreading Activation Explanation


  • Emery Schubert Empirical Musicology Laboratory, School of the Arts and Media, UNSW Australia, Sydney, Australia


music expectancy, spreading activation, associative networks, exemplars, veridical chains


A well agreed discourse in music perception research is that affective response can be generated by music when a tendency in the music is delayed or inhibited. There is a consensus that this tendency is statistically driven, derived from exposure to culturally situated musical idioms. By presenting a neural-network inspired spreading activation model (SAM) this paper argues that the nature of the tendency is worthy of further investigation. SAM organises the music stream perceived by the listener continuously into segments such that a match with an existing ‘mental representation’ (node) is found, which is then linked to the node for the previously segmented part of the music stream, with the link between these nodes strengthening and consolidating with exposure. The currently activated segment (the music being sounded) will prime the best matching (strongest linked) node available, generating expectancy. Expectancy is defined as the most strongly primed segment, and emerges dynamically through experience with environmental and musical contexts, rather than schematic or prototypical means. Expectancy is the specific exemplar instance that the activated (currently sounding) segment of music and contextual factors prime. This hypothesis of veridical dominance has implications for enduring aspects of music expectancy theory: (1) individual experiences matter in the formation of expectations; (2) expectations are a dynamic process, that change and are updated with experience; (3) context plays a critical role in expectancy; and (4) schema, prototypes and statistical accounts of expectation should be treated as convenient approximations of underlying cognitive processes.