David Huron, Professor of Music at Ohio State University, has written an absorbing book titled, Sweet anticipation: music and the psychology of expectation. When we listen to music, our relationship with it changes with repeated exposure. We predict what is coming, and then there is a pleasure derived when the music matches our predictions. The ‘sweet anticipation’ refers to these positive thoughts and feelings that come from predicting a future event that is then fulfilled.
It’s interesting to think about listening to music in this way. The predictions we make and the degree to which they are successful result in an emotional reward or penalty. Successful predictions result in positive emotional reward while the unsuccessful predictions result in surprise, which depending on the context may or may not itself result in a negative emotional penalty. More broadly, these emotional consequences have been shaped by evolution in order to motivate us to improve our anticipatory skills. Skills such as this help us to learn to respond correctly to our highly variable and often novel environments, and the pleasure we get from music is a by-product of this capacity.
Surprise isn’t always negative: it can be positive. If all our predictions are all fulfilled to easily, it can be boring. Think of music: a song in which you can tell exactly what’s going to happen next is so predictable you will rapidly tire of it, if indeed you liked it all in the first place. And music that we have been over-exposed to rapidly loses any appeal, and can end up being very annoying. Generally speaking though, we develop a relationship with interesting music, and this isn’t simply familiarity at play, it is because the brain is rewarding itself for its increasing ability to guess correctly what is coming next.
This applies to music. Does it also apply to wine? I think so. As we taste a wine, we bring our past experiences of this sort of wine to bear, and this knowledge and memory takes part in the construction of the flavour that we perceive. In the tasting process, we anticipate what we are to experience: we predict what is coming next, just as we do with music. Consider a red Bordeaux. You are with a friend, and they are opening a bottle of the 1996 Leoville Barton. You see the label: ah, this could be really nice. The fill level is very good, and you know the bottle has been in your friend’s cellar, which has good temperature control, so you expect the wine to be in good condition. The capsule comes off and the cork is removed: it looks sound. The wine is decanted, and it looks a full, bright colour. You know the estate’s reputation, and you’ve had quite a few 1996s recently – they’re really beginning to drink well. Before your glass is poured, you already have quite a few expectations about how the wine might taste. It’s poured at last (that’s nice, the sound of the wine pouring), and you take a sniff, followed by a first sip. Yes, this is much as you’d expected it to taste. And it’s like meeting an old friend: those reassuring flavours of a good Bordeaux just beginning to enter its drinking window.
Can we extend the analogy with music further? Some music is extremely accessible and you love it the first time you hear it. This may be genre specific, and depend on what you listen to regularly. For example, if you are familiar with a certain artist, you might get into their new music quicker than someone who isn’t. Some music requires several listen-throughs before you grow to like it. Accessible music you tire of more quickly than music that takes a while to get. Some music is just too far from our comfort zone that we will probably never grow to like it. It’s a very personal thing, as is wine preference.
Likewise some wines are easy to get. They have nice, easy flavours and they are delicious at first taste. There’s nothing wrong with wines like this, but they aren’t wines you can have an ongoing relationship with. They have poor conversations skills, and quickly you run out of things to say. If you love wine, you want a wine that surprises you a bit. That doesn’t meet all your predictions, and which grabs your attention. Often these sorts of interesting wines can be a bit off-putting on the first encounter. They have edges. They aren’t smooth and easy, but these are the sorts of wines we want to spend time with and get to know. And good wines repay a thorough cross-examination: as you question them, you find out more. Sometimes it takes others to point out their features before you recognize them. The more experience you have with various types of wine, the more you get to experience when you taste them.