The Negative Superstimulus Theory, In Three Sentences

20 February, 2021
In which I attempt to explain my theory of music as concisely as possible.

Three Sentences

  1. Truly spontaneous speech is un-musical.
  2. The perception of non-spontaneity in speech suppresses the evaluation of truth.
  3. When truth evaluation is suppressed, hypothetical emotions retain their full intensity.

That then is the whole theory.

But I can elaborate, and also I can speculate about why music has the effect that it does.

I will start with an elaborated version of those three sentences:

  1. Truly spontaneous speech is un-musical. Music is a type of speech-like sound which has characterstics which are the exact opposite of those characteristics that enable the listener to identify speech as being spontaneous.
  2. The perception of non-spontaneity in speech suppresses the evaluation of truth. The listener's brain is interested in the spontaneity of a speaker's speech, because less spontaneous speech provides less information about the current speaker's inner thoughts and less spontaneous speech implies that maybe the speaker's speech is contrived so as to extract information about the listener's current inner thoughts. Which would be an unfair and imbalanced exchange of information.
  3. When truth evaluation is suppressed, hypothetical emotions retain their full intensity. That is, the listener's brain computes an emotional response to the perceived meaning of the speaker's speech, and, in parallel, the listener's brain computes an opinion about the truth value of that meaning. In as much as the meaning is determined by the listener to be not true, or probably not true, that emotional response is reduced to a corresponding degree. So if truth evaluation is suppressed, then the emotional response will not be reduced at all.
  4. The end result is that the listener arrives at a state of mind where they experience intense emotion in response to the perceived meaning of speech, and they have no opinion at all about whether or not that meaning is true.

Music is a Negative SuperStimulus

The perception of non-spontaneity reduces the process of truth evaluation, ie the listener's brain makes less effort to evaluate the truth of the meanings of the sentences that the speaker is speaking (this can include the literal meanings of the words spoken, and also other meanings that may be implied by what is said and the context within which it is said).

Music is a superstimulus for the perception of non-spontaneity of speech. That is, the characteristics of music are the extreme opposite of those characteristics found in spontaneous speech.

At the same time, music has to share enough features with the sounds of speech for the listener's brain to process it as if it was a form of speech.

Music is a negative superstimulus in the sense that it causes the listener's brain to put less effort into processing the meaning of something.

What seems like the positive effect of music is actually a double negative – music acts to negatively suppress truth evaluation, and truth evaluation normally acts negatively to reduce the intensity of emotion associated with the meaning of perceived speech.

The final result of the suppression of the reduction is an apparent increase in the intensity of experienced emotion.

The Perception of Non-Spontaneity Is Most Relevant to Conversational Speech

Speech can be conversational, and speech can be more formal.

The listener's brain responds to the perception of the spontaneity or non-spontaneity of speech in both cases, but this response is more relevant in the case of informal conversation.

Formal speech is usually, by its very nature, less spontaneous.

Also it usually involves one person speaking to an audience of more than one person and, as a result, it does not usually require or expect any immediate response from the listener (or listeners), so the suppression or otherwise of truth evaluation is of less consequence.

In conversation it is much more likely that the listener will respond quite quickly to what the speaker has just said. In this situation, the effect of the perception of non-spontaneity to reduce or suppress truth evaluation will have a real effect on the listener's spoken response to the original speaker – the listener's response will be altered in such a manner that less information is provided back to the speaker about any opinion that the listener might have about what the speaker just said.

The listener's response to perceived non-spontaneity makes it harder for the speaker to extract information from the listener via contrived utterances.

This is not a Hypothesis about the Spontaneity of Music

Music can be pre-planned, but it can also be improvised in the moment.

It might seem that my hypothesis implies that music cannot be spontaneous.

But that is not what my theory is about.

Music can be spontaneous, but what my theory implies is that music cannot sound like spontaneous speech.

An improvised musical performance might or might not be different in various ways from a more rehearsed performance, but any such differences will be different to the differences found between speech that is more spontaneous and speech that is less spontaneous.

The Reason Why the Perception of Non-Spontaneity Suppresses Truth Evaluation

The listener's brain makes less effort to evaluate the truth of less spontaneous speech, because less spontaneity does not deserve a spontaneous reponse.

This is a matter of adaptive tit-for-tat – if the speaker is not revealing their own immediate thoughts in what they choose to say, then the listener should not reveal their own immediate thoughts about what the speaker has just said.

The suppression of truth evaluation in response to the perception of non-spontaneity helps to ensure an even exchange of information between two parties to a conversation.

Partial vs Full Suppression of Truth Evaluation

A lessening of spontaneity does not completely suppress truth evaluation – at most it slows it down a bit.

However, music is a superstimulus, and if the musical effect is strong enough, then the evaluation of truth will be almost completely suppressed, at least for a short time.

This results in the emotional effect of music, because normally the evaluation of truth reduces the intensity of emotion associated with perceived meanings, but, if truth evaluation is suppressed, then this reduction does not occur, and the emotions are felt with full intensity, albeit attached to meanings that are fully hypothetical.

This combination of emotional intensity and suppressed truth evaluation is exactly what characterises the altered state of mind that music invokes.