Music Creates A Feeling Of Salience

4 November, 2019
Hypothesis: The primary effect of music is that it creates a feeling of salience, which can be applied to things that we imagine, even though those things are not real (and therefore not really salient).


For the purposes of this article, I will define salience in terms of what it means for a perception to be salient.

A perception is salient, if it is important for an individual to pay attention to that perception, because:
  • the perceived thing is something very unusual or unexpected, and/or,
  • the perceived thing is relevant to the individual's goals.

The Salience Hypothesis

The Salience Hypothesis states that:

The primary effect of music is to create in the listener's mind a feeling of salience.

This feeling of salience is qualified and constrained in various ways.


Music creates the feeling of salience, but, a priori, the salience is not associated with any particular perception.

In other words, the music specifies a feeling that something is salient, but the music does not specify what that something is.

The music listener will tend to apply the generated feeling of salience to some particular perception, subject to various rules and constraints.


Musically generated salience applies preferentially to imagined perceptions occurring within the imagination of the music listener.


The imagined scenarios to which musically-generated salience applies will contain a protagonist. The protagonist may be the listener, or a group of people that includes the listener, or it may be some other individual or group of individuals, who may or may not be imaginary. When the listener is not the protagonist, the perceived salience of a perception relates to the goals of the imagined protagonist, as if the listener has a strong empathy with the goals of that protagonist.
The musically generated salience may have an emotional quality, which will constrain which perceptions in imagined scenarios the salience can be applied to.

In as much as salience relates to the achievement or not of goals, it may be more accurate to categorise "happy"/"sad" emotions as feelings about the likelihood of achieving or not achieving those goals related to the perception that the salience will apply to.

Other aspects of musical "emotion" can be categorised in terms of any actions that might be taken, or should be taken, in relation to the goals under consideration (which I will consider in more detail below).

Most music listeners will prefer not to imagine from scratch a possible scenario, and will instead prefer to apply music-generated salience to thoughts that they are already having, or, to apply music-generated salience to an imaginary scenario, the details of which are supplied externally.

Examples of externally supplied scenarios are those which are specified, or at least suggested, by:

Some music listeners are motivated to imagine their own scenarios from scratch when listening to music – some of these listeners correspond to those who identify themselves as maladaptive daydreamers, in the case where their maladaptive daydreaming depends on the ready availability of suitable music.

Feelings about Required Actions

I hypothesize that a feeling of salience is the primary effect of music.

However, I recognize that there are other aspects of musical effect, which vary depending on the choice musical item, including the well-known "happy-sad" continuum.

Other variable aspects of musical effect relate to the nature of the action required in furtherance of the protagnonist's goals, and different items of music may be consistent with the following assertions about such action:

In music videos, dance often acts as a proxy for such actions, and the dancing will be gentle, or energetic, or uninhibited, according to the feelings that the music creates in relation to goal-oriented action to be taken by a protagonist (or protagonists) in furtherance of their goals.

Types of Goals

Music seems to be more about some types of goals than others.

Whether it be the lyrics of a song, or a scene in a film accompanied by music, romantic and sexual relationships seem to be the most popular topic that music relates to.

But romance and sex are not the only subject of song lyrics.

(I won't say too much more about this for the moment, because I think more research is needed to get a clearer view of which types of goals are mostly commonly associated with music and which types of goals are usually not associated with music.)

Confusion between Reality and Fantasy

Fantasies are alternate versions of reality where the imaginer has made certain assumptions that deviate from what is known to be true.

Usually fantasies are somewhat realistic, in the sense that they do not consist of an endless sequence of random nonsense perceptions – there is some type of coherence and logic that applies, even in the fantasy world.

Fantasies are not real, yet at the same time they are perceived, to some extent, as if there are real.

There is a resulting danger that an individual might lose sight of the false nature of their own imagined fantasies, and confuse those fantasies with reality. Such an individual would have succeeded in becoming delusional.

Music, and Addictive Fantasizing

It is known that music can drive addictive fantasizing, ie maladaptive daydreaming.

But, maladaptive daydreamers do not become delusional as a result of their addiction, and there is no evidence of any group of people who become delusional as a result of listening to music too much.

Nevertheless, there is a sense in which maladaptive daydreamers confuse reality and fantasy, because they make the decision to spend so much time having fantasies, when really they should be spending some of that time dealing with reality, and experiencing real-life situations.

An interpretation of this is that maladaptive daydreamers do not have false beliefs about the truth of their fantasies, but they do have false beliefs about how important and interesting their fantasies are.

Hypothesis: Inhibition of Salience in Fantasies

Most people, who are not maladaptive daydreamers, will daydream. But, they only daydream when they have nothing better to think about.

Many fantasies contain scenarios and events which are in some way significantly different to what happens in an individual's daily real life, and those fantasies often involve situations where the imaginer has a high level of success in achieving some of their goals.

As a result, the normal criteria of salience, if applied, would make the things that happen in those fantasies highly salient compared to the more mundane realities of daily life. Since salience, by definition, determines what is most important to pay attention to, this would result in imagined fantasies being almost always more important than reality, even in those situations where reality is sufficiently exciting and/or important that one should be dealing with it.

To prevent the imagining individual from finding their fantasies to be too exciting, and too interesting, the brain may provide mechanisms to substantial inhibit the perceived salience of anything that happens within an imagined fantasy.

However, there might be some benefit in being able to apply realistic rules of salience to fantasy situations, at least some of the time, for example to practice being able to calculate the correct level of salience for such situations, so that the brain's calculation of salience will be correct should something like the fantasy situation ever happen in real life.

This leads to a possible theory about the function of music:

Under this hypothesis, the musical "state of mind" is constrained to only occur under those conditions where quality music can be performed and listened to. Under the circumstances of human societies prior to the existence of modern technologies, performing high quality music would require significant effort and organisation on an ongoing basis (because the best music comes from group performances), and it would not be possible to always be listening to high quality music.

Of course modern technology has severely reduced this constraint, and most people, if they really want to, can listen to high quality performances of music that they really like, for most of the day, which in the most extreme case means they can be listening to music continuously for every waking hour of every day.

It may be that maladaptive daydreaming exists because modern technology has made it too easy for many of us to listen to as much music as we want to listen to, for as long as we want to.

This results in some people finding it too easy to enjoy the pleasures of music-driven daydreaming, just like modern technologies of food production and distribution make it too easy to enjoy the pleasures of eating however much food we want to eat, which results in some of us becoming dysfunctionally overweight.