Whenever something is going to happen, our brain does a quick calculation of probabilities and of course imagines the most favorable or at least most common results. In order to explain this phenomenon I’ll use the theme “home” as a metaphor and I’ll relate it to the musical context.
Imagine, for example, if someone would knock at the door. You cannot imagine it is going to be a wolf, especially because you know you are not in the context of a fairy tale. You can imagine it is going to be a postman, especially if you expect a letter and that is the time the postman makes his deliveries. Or you might imagine it is someone that you invited.
If you have no idea about who is knocking at your door, your mind will imagine the strangest things, but still more likely to happen. Your mind will rationally discard the idea that you have an extraterrestrial visitor, but it could probably imagine you could deal with a common criminal: the unknown requires us to think protectively towards us.
Now, for example, changing the context and entering a fairy tale, it is more likely that when someone knocks at a door that the one knocking is precisely the wolf. And that’s because wolves, you know, in fairy tales knock at almost every door. Changing again context and entering a science fiction movie, it is very likely that who is knocking is a frightening extraterrestrial visitor, who will abduct and take us on his spaceship. Our mind then anticipates the outcome of a situation, calculating the probability according to a context and trying to find the sweetest anticipations.
Talking about doors and houses, my realtor told me that every time he opens the door of a house that he does not know, it is like going to a first date. Obviously one would expect to have a wonderful and unforgettable experience: the more our expectations are out of the context, the more you might anticipate a failure. But our mind does not stop imagining, slowly adapting the imagined pictures to the circumstances and anticipating outcomes with a quick calculation of probability. Sweet or bitter anticipations, then?
Through a corpus analysis on several musical pieces, David Huron was able to formulate in his book “Sweet Anticipation” (2006) a model of a psychological string of anticipatory responses, in particular in relation to music. This model is called “The ITPRA Theory of Expectation.” ITPRA is an acronym for Imagination, Tension, Prediction, Reaction, Appraisal. The theory basically describes the cognitive process from the imagination of an outcome to its appraisal.
According to Huron’s theory in unknown situations our brain imagines the best possible and beneficial outcome, adjusts to the situations through a certain tension between the imagined picture and the possibilities and probabilities of an event to occur, predicts the outcome. At this stage our brain is imagining an outcome adjusting the expectations to a context. We react then to the outcome and appraise it as being “sweet”… or “bitter”.
Coming from Europe, I was used to see “stone/brick” houses. Wood buildings are something which, in particular in Italy, is considered as provisional, for shelters, emergencies or just for cabins you use once in a while. Imagine the shock for my brain as I had to realize that wood is what is considered as “normal” in the construction industry here in the US. In the same way, one listener who is used to, let’s say, pop music, will have to adjust his expectations to an atonal piece and entrain the brain to the new content. Surely the listener wouldn’t like the atonal piece at first: it takes a long time to learn how to manage the relationship between our imagination of a sound and the prediction of it in order to avoid bitter outcomes and to finally be able to really enjoy it.
And the more our previous entrainment was detailed and unflexible, the more our following entrainment will be difficult.
I am not trained as an architect, of course, but as we built our house in Germany long time ago, our architect instructed us about all the advantages and disadvantages of using certain materials in construction, about the layout of the house, about structural issues. That house was built with patience, attention to details and so much love. Our entrainment in that area is high, because of that.
Now that I am trying to buy a house in another country, my expectations are in contrast with the context I live in and I have to psychologically entrain myself to the new situation. And that’s really tough. First of all, I expect people working in the industry to be passionate and reliable as I am in my profession. Again, I am taking myself and my experience to establish my expectations. So, I expect for example an agent to know at least things that I can figure out by myself with a google search and to be honest and trustfully. (That’s when I fired my very first agent)
And I expect people who can guide me in this unknown world.
(That’s when I fired my second agent within a few days)
In order to entrain the brain we need an honest guide we can trust.
In music, to fully appreciate a contemporary piece or a classical piece, if this is something we are not used to, we need to adapt slowly our expectations to the new context through a patient guide, which can connect the new and unknown to what we know.
It happens to me, as a teacher, every time I assign to students a new piece written by a composer they never played. The first reaction is an absolute rejection. If I stimulate their imagination, find for them connections they might like and guide them ignoring their complaints, they are going to appreciate the piece after a while.
In the “house” context I had exactly that same reaction as my students. An absolute rejection for everything which was far from my imagination. I have even mistreated my poor agent (third, last and best agent ever!), who – how could he? – couldn’t show me a house which matched my biased imagination. It takes a lot a patience, guidance and trust to adjust to every situation we are not used to.
More than a theory of expectations, I would define Huron’s theory as a theory of entrainment. We expect what we are trained to expect. In case the real outcome will match our imagined one, then the anticipation will be sweet in the appraisal. If the outcome is very different from our expectations, then the appraisal will be bitter the first time and need entrainment to become sweet again.