How Does Music Produce Emotional Reactions?

The movie Arlington Road has perhaps the most unsatisfying ending ever. I saw it in 1999, and it still annoys the crap out of me.

A close second? 12 Monkeys. All that buildup, and I’m not sure how to interpret the ending. Argh!

Maybe I’m peculiar this way, but when I invest 2 hours of time in a movie, I like to see an ending that feels rewarding in some way. It doesn’t have to be a happy ending per se, and it’s also not much fun if the ending is totally predictable. It just has to be a satisfying resolution to the buildup of the last 90-120 minutes.

Like The Usual Suspects. Best ending ever.

Umm…what do best/worst movie endings have to do with music?

Well, have you ever wondered why music can engender strong emotional reactions in us? Why we like some music and not others? Why some performances have an emotional impact, and others don’t?

Researchers in cognitive science and music psychology have wondered the same thing, and there may be lessons to be learned from storytelling and filmmaking, that can help us elicit a stronger emotional reaction from our audiences as well.

Babies and patterns

From the moment you were born, you began organizing your experiences into templates (or “schemas”) about how the world works. You began identifying patterns, and using your growing understanding about these to predict the future.

As in, hmm…when I whimper, a soft cuddly creature who smells nice comes and pays attention to me. When I cry, things kick up a notch and I get pampered with food, clean diapers, and bouncy rides. And when I scream, it seems to be the same drill as crying, except I get faster service.

Over time, as we accumulate more experiences and conduct more tests of the world around us, we become increasingly sophisticated about what we can expect in the future. Our internal library of templates and probabilities thus helps us navigate the world more smoothly.

For instance, when you go to a restaurant, past history suggests that you wait to be seated, order, eat, and pay.

So when you encounter a restaurant which requires you to pay first, then find some food, and then find a seat, it can be a little confusing and anxiety provoking.

Expectancies and emotions

Not only does our library of expectancies help guide our actions on a day to day basis, it also plays a role in our emotional experience of the world around us.

For example, when I order my favorite chicken/mushroom/jalapeño pizza from the restaurant down the street, I’ve come to learn that there are three possible outcomes I can expect.

One, the pizza arrives, and toppings, crust, size, temperature, etc. are just what I’ve come to expect from this place. No complaints. Expectations are met, I’m content, and that’s not so bad.

Or, I get the pizza, and it’s bursting out of the box because the pizza guy made it extra big. It’s loaded with extra chicken, it looks especially yummy, and I’m like, YES! Awesome! I feel pleasantly surprised, delighted, and am psyched about my pizza.

Or, I get the pizza, the edges don’t even touch the sides of the box, the crust is burnt, seems thinner, and there are gaping chicken-less spots on the pie. I feel a bit annoyed and disappointed. I mean, where’s the missing ~18 square inches of my pizza?!

Satisfying or violating expectations

Neuroscientists are finding that music can give us pleasure (or not) in much the same way as my pizza experience.


Well, it seems that our past listening experiences combine to form our own unique internalized personal music library. A set of templates and expectancies about the rules and structure of music, ranging from pitch to timbre to volume to melody/harmony/rhythm/etc. Essentially, an intuitive sense of what sorts of sounds we can expect to hear, and how these sounds are likely to unfold over time.

The essence of music, and what appears to make us have an emotional reaction, are thus the “positive prediction errors,” or the unexpected, delightful surprises that we didn’t see coming. Aural events that violated our expectations, and provided us with something better than what our predictions led us to believe we would be forthcoming.

The way this is done in music, is much like it is done in storytelling.

By leading the listener down a path…

Creating an expectation of where the path is likely to go…

Building up the anticipation…

And heightening the suspense…and delaying the inevitable…wait for it…wait for it…

…before finally revealing that their expectations were right.

Or instead…by surprising the listener!

Setting them up to expect a particular resolution, but revealing something way cooler instead. Something that they didn’t see coming.

What’s really intriguing about all of this is that the key part of the music listening experience may not be just the emotional high points per se, but in the build-up which leads to those moments.

Case in point, a recent neuroimaging study out of McGill University found that the neurotransmitter dopamine was released not just during the so-called “peak emotional moments,” but also in the build-up to those moments a few seconds prior.

Anticipatory pleasure

Think about the last time you had plans to do something particularly exciting and fun on a weekend. Much of the emotional benefit of having plans in advance lies not in the fun activity itself, but in the emotional boost you get from anticipating and looking forward to your fun evening out.

Like the last week before going on a long-awaited vacation. No matter how stressful or difficult a week of work you have, it doesn’t seem to feel as bad, because you’re so excited about the upcoming trip. The vacation may even end up being a total drag, but it doesn’t change the fact that you gained a great deal from the uplifting period of anticipation beforehand.

Take action

Think about your music in terms of tension and release. Anticipation and resolution.

What happens when you focus more deliberately on increasing anticipation? On having fun with the audience and leading them down the path you want them to take, knowing exactly what they are likely to predict, and then subtly (or not so subtly) delighting them with a surprise that only you knew was coming?

Totally unrelated, but I’m curious and on the lookout for a good movie to watch (hmm…is that abuse of the blog?). What are your picks for movies with best/worst endings ever? Share below…

Additional reading

Read about the study here: Why Music Makes Our Brain Sing

Check out the audio clips subjects listened to, and how they ended up ranking in terms of popularity (#1 is definitely more appealing than #60, but there’s something entertaining about #60 too…): Audio clips from music reward value study

Lady Gaga totally gets it: Lady Gaga interview with The Telegraph

And for fans of Lost and J.J. Abrams, check out his terrific TED talk, which gets at this from another angle.

photo credit: superUbO via photopin cc

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29 Responses

  1. If you’re looking for a good contender for the most perplexing and unsatisfying movie ending, check out Time Bandits. It’s a great movie, and absolutely hilarious with much of the Monty Python crew in it (not to mention a very young Sean Connery), but the ending still leaves you scratching your head and a little empty inside.

  2. Great endings (of great movies):
    The wages of fear (Le salaire de la peur)
    The man who shot Liberty Valance
    Witness for the prosecution
    All about Eve
    A room with a view

  3. Oh The Sixth Sense is a contender. If you guess the ending then the entire journey is abysmally disappointing, no anticipatory pleasure, so better not to try to guess. But if you avoid trying to puzzle it out, it is an incredibly moving and memorable experience from start to finish. And thanks Noa for a wonderful and thought provoking blog, I took up violin 2 years ago (aged 50) and am having the time of my life. You might enjoy my website with my own musings on art and music. Best wishes, Andrew.

  4. Good endings:
    Shawshank Redemption (you’ve probably seen it a million times though)
    The Great Escape (Americans imprisoned in WWII Germany escape…)

    Bad endings:
    Monty python and the Holy Grail. Pretty awful ending. But I think that’s what they were going for, to piggyback on the last persons comment.

  5. Hey Dr. Noa,

    Thanks for this blog, thoroughly enjoyed it….I watched a number of movies this summer while flying over to Europe, so here’s my picks:

    Life of Pi (very touching movie about a shipwreck teenager and a tiger)
    The Namesake
    Epic (kid’s movie)
    How to train your dragon (kid’s movie)
    Argo (Iran hostage crisis)
    The Host (alien invasion movie, a bit cheesy but)

    Let me know what you think


  6. I use the mystery novel model for surprising the listener — you want them to twig onto what’s coming, but only about three milliseconds beforehand. It’s like getting to the end of an Agatha Christie novel. If it’s done well, you will be in a fog … right up to just before the big reveal, upon which point you’ll go, “Hey, I bet it’s–!” and you’ll be right. That way, you get the pleasure of surprise and the pleasure of having been clever enough to see it coming. 🙂

  7. Oh forgot — best ending? “The Sixth Sense.” Very Beethoven-like in that the whole movie punks you, but it’s so good that you don’t mind. Beethoven is great like that — he’ll lead your ear right down the garden path until you’re positive that you’re in a certain place, upon which point he waves at you from about five miles off and you realize that you aren’t at all where you thought you were. But again, he’s so good that you fall for it every time, and enjoy it every time.

  8. Endings are important for me too! Life of Pi has a good ending, if you haven’t already seen it. It’s pretty epic, the effects are really good and the book itself is interesting.

  9. One of my favorite movies done on PBS 20-30 years ago with a great ending….” The Lathe of Heaven”! Intriguing with twists and turns and just when you think you’ve got it…..
    The old release is much better than the newer version.
    “Brain Dead ” is another movie I like but maybe an unsatisfying ending…..

  10. Wow, consciously I would never have picked this up, however, I do believe that my subconscious may have. In the way that I not only perform but how I choose songs and movies from many different genres that have no relevant link. A part from that pinnacle build up to the moment of realization behind all the fore actions and emotions. As for some movies, I find “Blues Brothers” partically thrilling as well as the remake of “the Itailan Job”. There’s another style of film that I have found that CAN be really engaging and that is anime. Now some can be really raunchy, gory and down right rude, however there are a few out there which really have that compelling build up and conclusion with some really great morals behind them. Great blog by the way

  11. The Apartment and Double Indemnity are both older movies with excellent and satisfying endings. A newer movie with a satisfying ending is Away We Go.

  12. I hate movies with bad endings. Too many to mention.The Perfect Storm.They all die for a bunch of fish. I agree on 12 Monkeys! Aarg. Some good movies have been mentioned already. Great Escape. Magnificent 7. The Life of Pi was amazing. A good movie I saw recently was The Impossible. A story of a family in Tailand during that Tsunami on Christmas Day. The Scarlet Pimpernel with Jane Seymour is one of my all time favorites. Thanks for your blog.

  13. You know … thinking about movie endings that annoyed me … “2001” is probably the worst. Not because it’s ambiguous or “deep” or has to be interpreted but because it is none of these things. The ending of the movie is as follows:

    The aliens kidnapped David Bowman and turned him into a creature that would serve as an “ambassador” between them and humans, then sent him back to the planet about a decade later looking like a giant fetus. That’s it. That was the ending of the movie. It has zero ambiguity, isn’t “deep” or “psychedelic” in any way, and the only confusion came because the moviemakers decided not to explain it. The deliberately obscured the ending, and called it profundity.

    It’s a bit like another of my favorite xkcd comics, Words that End in GRY. “Communicating badly and then acting smug when you’re misunderstood is not cleverness.”

    It doesn’t work for jokes, it doesn’t work for movies, and it doesn’t work for music. Explain yourself. If people are left befuddled due to the complexity of your ideas, that’s one thing, but if they are left befuddled because you’re a poor communicator, that’s not quite the same thing.

    *off the soapbox*

  14. The movie, “The Boys From Brazil,” where the brilliant and sadistic Nazi, Dr. Mengele, played by Gregory Peck, alive and well, hiding in South America, clones dozens of potential Hitlers, and places them, through adoption, in various families throughout the world, hoping at least one of them will reemerge as the Fuhrer. The plot is discovered by a famed Nazi hunter, played by Lawrence Olivier, who, in the end, destroys the list showing the whereabouts of these cloned ‘Hitler,’ because a rival group of Nazi hunters planned to kill each one of them; at that time teenaged boys; clearly displaying characteristics of a budding Hitler. This constitutes one of the most complex, and difficult ending of any movie I can think of.

  15. If you are interested in historical movies as well the ending of this one leaves you just speachless…A very nice cast also with a very nice story…

    Dangerous Liaisons

  16. Although not a movie, the ending to “The Sopranos.” It wasn’t an ending so much as it just stopped. Some people loved it, some hated it. Some music or performances are like that, they just stop. Sometimes it is the performers, sometimes the composer, but the audience is left guessing, which again some like, some hate.

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